April 28, 2011

I completely understand that President Obama released his “long-form” birth certificate so people would start focusing on the serious business before us.

But in his place, I don’t think I would have done so, and the reason has to do with the indignity of it all. Obama worked hard to get into Columbia and Harvard and then to be elected senator and president. Shouldn’t that be enough?

I, like others in my generation of African Americans, have always chafed when my parents said that black people have to be twice as good. Why? Excellence for its own sake is a virtue, but its use just to prove something to others is offensive.

I now understand the meaning of “I’m not even going to dignify that with a response.” I feel that, by acknowledging the questions about his background, questions no other presidential candidate has ever had to answer, he gave those questions legitimacy. He empowered racists all over the country to raise ridiculous challenges to the credentials and competence of African Americans when they can’t block us out by any other means. It’s called racism.

Until Wednesday, what Obama said by not saying anything spoke volumes.

In my native South, blacks historically had to take ridiculous tests to vote. “Quick, tell me how many jelly beans are in this jar” or “how many bubbles are in this bar of soap?” In other words, they could never be good enough.

We have come so far as a country. But if we aren’t careful, we will slide right back down into the muck from which we came.

Pat Buchanan and Donald Trump have gone so far as to question how Obama could even have gotten into the prestigious schools he graduated from. It literally made me sick to my stomach.

Look, I know that the president has big fish to fry — the budget deficit and three wars, not to mention being the man of the house among four black women. I can only imagine what he has to deal with on a day-to-day basis. My respect for him is almost boundless.

But here’s what I need him to know: Even though he may be able to let some things roll off his back, how he reacts to the way that he is treated as a black man affects all African Americans.

His aides persuaded him to back off from his comments regarding the “stupid” actions of the police officer who arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his own house. His staff got rid of Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod — the victim of a right-wing blogger who distorted what she said at an NAACP event — so fast that she had to text in her resignation.

In short, for someone who popularized the phrase “teachable moment,” he has been letting a lot of teachable moments slip by without teaching anything.

And if the country is to maintain the elevated consciousness that I was so proud to share on election night in 2008, when random white people were coming up to me and hugging me on U Street, I really wish he would don his professor hat from time to time and use some of these teachable moments to teach.

The writer, a District resident, is associate vice president for communications at a college in Maryland.