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Barack Obama, Rae Dawn Chong and the politics of ‘blackness’

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In the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch guard who shot and killed black 17-year old Trayvon Martin as he was walking home from a convenience store; race and racism have once again been thrust into the national discussion. Rallies and vigils for Trayvon have occurred all over the country and, after several days, President Barack Obama spoke about the incident and how race continues to divide American culture.

“Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” Obama acknowledged as he addressed the country, and he attempted to explain to a populace that finds too much comfort in pretending that racism is dead that African Americans’ perspective on such issues is filtered through a lens of experiences. He stated that black people believe that “if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.” His speech was necessary and one that no other president could have ever given; he had to voice concerns that black Americans have had for generations, while also attempting to unify citizens in the aftermath of an extraordinarily polarizing case.

But Salon writer Rich Benjamin wrote a scathing critique of the president’s words, and used his own brand of divisive, ugly language to validate his position. Benjamin compared Obama’s speech to Attorney General Eric Holder‘s commentary, which Benjamin felt demanded more action. “Some of us have an Inner Child. Others have an Inner Nigger. Is Holder the president’s conscience? Or his Inner Nigger?” Benjamin wrote. “Is Holder the president’s aggressive internal mind and voice — willing to speak truth to power, but unbothered with appearing like an angry black man?”

Benjamin’s words uncomfortably echo a long-standing criticism of Barack Obama (most famously posed by white comedian/talk show host Bill Maher): the idea that somehow the president isn’t being ‘black’ enough. In other words, ‘black’ = aggressive, confrontational.

The sad irony of that assessment lies in the cold-blooded murder of Trayvon Martin. That young man was stalked and shot by a paranoid bigoted vigilante who saw black men in the same way, apparently, that Rich Benjamin does. Black = aggressive, confrontational.

And Martin paid for that bit of prejudice with his life.

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