President Obama just gave a really bland, boring speech in Chicago which some optimistic folks among us thought might directly address the problem of inner-city gun violence, in the wake of shooting death of Hadiya Pendleton. It quickly became clear, however, that Obama was in stump mode–this speech was almost identical to his State of the Union address, except this time he didn’t smile, and I assume the audience was more diverse than that of our assembled legislators.
I had already been interested in the gender politics of Obama’s (and our whole country’s) response to the death of female non-gang member Hadiya Pendleton. We are outraged over Hadiya; we are outraged over Sandy Hook; but we still aren’t outraged over the thousands of young men killed by gang violence each year. We don’t seem able to take responsibility for young men in gangs, wielding weapons, being killed, as also our children, as also a tragedy, as also victims, victims of larger structural problems perhaps, but deserving of political sight nonetheless. Our compassion stops there. So I was surprised-not-surprised to see Obama standing in front of an array of only female high school students. I didn’t think he was speaking at an all-female school.
Of course, the speech contained ample messages about “encouraging fatherhood,” which if this was at the RNC convention we’d call a “dog whistle,” and plenty took to Twitter to bemoan Obama’s selective amnesia about mass incarceration. Then, this amazing moment happened where Obama hollered at some young men in the audience he’d spoken to–he asks them to stand so that “we can all see them.” The President looks off-stage, tensely, as though trying to mind-jedi communicate he wants them to be on TV. But the cameras stay on him. We don’t see them. Obama says “these guys are no different from me,” only he had a stronger safety net–but what these young men look like, whether they look like Obama or not, I don’t know. We don’t see them.
Only then, at the end of his speech, as Obama physically moves to reach out to the young men in the audience, do I realize there is a tall African-American teenage boy standing directly behind the President, surrounded by about a dozen girls. You can see him in the screenshot above. Could he tell the President was directly between himself and the camera? Did he wonder why he was surrounded by a moat of females? I sure did. This image speaks to the huge oversights in Obama’s speech. Even when President Obama tried to be compassionate and inclusive toward young men of color, they were still off screen, hidden from our sight just as they will be when they are incarcerated, or disenfranchised, or criminalized.
In his last few huge speeches – DNC, SOTU — Obama has begun crafting a theoretical framework around the value of citizenship, a vision that values participatory democracy through individual works and cooperation. Mr. President, are these young men not also citizens? Are drug users citizens? Is Anwar Al-Awlaki’s son? While I appreciate your vision of citizenship, as progressives it is our duty to expand the polity and the ranks of the enfranchised. Keeping young men of color off our TV screens isn’t the right way to start.