Last week, President Barack Obama threw aside his normally non-committal approach to the bully pulpit in order to champion the interests of young men of color. It’s about time.
Some commentators cried foul. The president shouldn’t show favoritism to a particular group, they said. He shouldn’t suggest preferential attention be paid to them despite the statistics that prove that young men of color are, as Obama said, less likely to read, less likely to finish their education, and more likely to spend time in jail than any other group. He shouldn’t “play the race card,” they said.
Nonsense. Every woman, every gay person, every person with a disability, everyone who doesn’t quite match the mental pictures that fit a northern European cultural profile knows that there are perks available to the majority culture that they don’t get.
None of us chooses our race and gender. White males simply are, and have always been, the majority—especially of the powerful. No one cries foul when Tim Russert’s son Luke gets a plum job at NBC immediately after college. No one cries foul when Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter Sophia quickly finds major backing for her movie “Lost in Translation.” No one cries foul when Peyton and Eli Manning follow their father’s path through the NFL.
These men and woman have talent and work hard. The point, however, is that they got significant opportunities and resources without having to prove themselves first. How many young men of color with the same talent, the same drive, the same work ethic have not had opportunities because they do not have the same generational connections to those who can open doors and justify investments?
Obama spoke truth when he said that it is pretense to assume a color-blind society. He knows it. He experienced it. A talented young athlete with a dazzling smile and a brilliant mind, he was still an outsider at wealthy, connected, mostly white Punahou High School in Hawaii.
When he appeared with a group of young men this week, Obama seemed at his best. Engaged. Younger. Committed. The world looks different for a boy of color who works hard and has the right guidance because of Obama.
He has earned the right to leverage his position as the first American president of color more publically and more often. In doing so, he gives a special message to this particular group of young men that he need not be the last.