If I had a son, he would look like Christopher Lane, the 22-year-old Australian baseball player shot dead while jogging in Oklahoma.
If I had a father, he’d look like Delbert Belton, the 88-year-old World War II veteran beaten to death in Spokane, Wash.
And yes, if I had a son, he’d look like the white teenager who police say drove the getaway car in the Oklahoma killing.
These are all true statements if we identify ourselves and each other only by the color of our skin, which, increasingly seems to be the case — including our own president.
President Barack Obama helped lead the way when he identified himself with Trayvon Martin, shot by George Zimmerman in the neighborhood-watch catastrophe with which all are familiar. Stepping out from his usual duties of drawing meaningless red lines in the Syrian sand, the president splashed red paint across the American landscape:
“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
In so saying, he essentially gave permission for all to identify themselves by race with the victim or the accused. How sad as we approach the 50th anniversary of the march Martin Luther King Jr. led on Washington that even the president resorts to judging not by the content of one’s character but by the color of his skin — the antithesis of the great dream King articulated with those words.
Obama went even further after the Zimmerman verdict, expressing his self-identification not as leader of a racially diverse nation — or as the son of a white mother — but as a black man who remembers women clutching their purses tighter when he entered an elevator, and being followed in department stores. All because he was black?
Even today, I am followed when I go to the second floor of a boutique in Georgetown. Apparently, store policy requires that an attendant be upstairs when a shopper is. The way department store clerks follow me around, you’d think my face was plastered on a “Wanted for Shoplifting” poster. This is especially so if I’m dressed like a slob.
In my 20s, I conducted an experiment when I had the opposite problem. No clerk would help me. It occurred to me that my ratty jeans and T-shirt might be the problem, so I went home, changed into a dress, and returned. You’d have thought I was a honey bun in a beehive. Just for fun, I bought a $38,000 purse. (That’s a joke.)
Was the clerk prejudiced? You bet. But like it or not, the way we present ourselves to the world affects the way we are treated. Thus it has always been. I’m betting that few women today clutch their purses tighter when a well-groomed man, black or white, enters the elevator. A punk wearing his britches around his rump and telegraphing attitude? Even Jesse Jackson — or Eminem — might feel a tingle of discomfort.
Nothing is fair about profiling, but one’s treatment by a stranger is not always necessarily linked to one’s racial or ethnic history. Sometimes it’s just … you.
The killings leading the news the past several days have been horrific in their apparent randomness. Were they racially motivated? Had the perps been white and the victims black, would Obama have identified with them? More to immediate concerns, did the president’s identification with Martin nourish the killing passions of these youths?
Hard to say with any certainty, though one of those charged in the Oklahoma shooting apparently tweeted some messages earlier this summer that unmistakenly convey racial animus toward whites. They might be dismissed as Twitter nonsense — but for the dead body.
We do know this much for certain: Had the races been reversed, the usual suspects would have had much to say. White teens beat up an elderly black veteran and leave him for dead? White teens shoot a talented black athlete visiting from another country?
I make these observations not to further exacerbate a problem but in the hope that we can stop this craziness before things escalate. The conversation-about-race that pundits keep insisting we need to have should end where it began. Maybe in his remarks on the 50th anniversary of the greatest peaceful demonstration in history, Obama can remind Americans that if we had sons and fathers, they’d look like Christopher Lane and Delbert Belton, as well as Trayvon Martin.
Victim in chief is no role for a president.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.