Somehow I doubt it. What Barack Obama probably meant was that his experience as a young black man paralleled that of Martin in many respects. The president then went on to explain something about what it is like to be a black male in the United States.
Thus, he talked about how when a black man enters an elevator with a white woman, she clutches her handbag. He also described how people locked their car doors when he came by — that is, before he became a senator.
Did our president mean that all white women are terrified of all black men whenever they meet? Did he intend to suggest that white people, anywhere in America, upon spotting an African-American man in the street, immediately press their car’s door-lock?
Somehow I doubt this too. Obama was essentially stereotyping. He was drawing upon his experience — and that of many other African-Americans — to generalize about whites. Most of the time what he said does not apply, but it does often enough to make it worth noticing.
Incidentally, when Trayvon Martin told his friend that a “creepy-ass cracker” was following him, he too was stereotyping. He didn’t even get Zimmerman’s race right, but aware this person was not black he jumped to a conclusion — probably because he knew that his presence had previously made whites nervous.
So here comes another of my stories. Back when I was in college, I got a temporary job selling encyclopedias door-to-door. The way it worked was that the publisher provided us with a script we were to repeat verbatim with every potential customer. This spiel concluded with the statement that if the man of the house was absent, I would come back later.
At the time a compliant young man, I followed this scenario to the letter in the South Bronx neighborhood to which I had been delivered. So imagine my surprise when I came back to an apartment house where I had a number of re-appointments to find a police officer waiting in the lobby.
It seemed that one of the women in the building had been terrified by a strange bearded man knocking on her door. Needless to say, that was me. I was naturally startled by this news because I knew what a harmless fellow I was.
The woman, however, did not know me. This was a time when beards were just coming into fashion and so she associated them with social deviants. Only later would facial hair be so common as to be taken for granted. In the meantime, she drew upon a stereotype she then shared with many of her neighbors.
I could have been insulted by her supposition, but I was not. After I got over my initial surprise, I realized her reaction was understandable given the world in which we both lived.
The same is true about the relationship between young black men and crime. Given the world in which we live, it is understandable that strangers should be suspicious of young black men they do not know — especially if they are in unexpected places. Blacks too should realize this and factor it into their responses.
Nor is this situation liable to change in the immediate future. Given the sort of species we are, and the astronomical crime rates among young black men, we humans (irrespective of our race) will continue to reach this conclusion. Only a change in the crime rates, or our personal knowledge of individuals, will alter this.
Just ask the president. It was only after he became a senator, and more people knew him, that they stopped locking their car doors when he walked by.
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology at Kennesaw State University.