In 2008, black Americans quietly worried Obama would be assassinated if he won the presidency, or killed before he could take the oath of office. While they may miss the presence of the first black family in the White House, there were more than a few fist bumps that they got out alive. It's impossible to quantify, but author and professor Michael Eric Dyson spoke for many when he wrote
in the New York Times in January:
"Never far from the surface was the fear that some lunatic bigot might put an end to the life of this extraordinary man. Every report of a rogue police force cracking jokes about him raised concerns. Now that his presidency is coming to an end, we can heave a sigh of relief on that point, even as we worry about the efforts of his successor to eviscerate his legacy."
That's why all fictional, offensive depictions of US presidents being harmed or killed aren't created equal. Comedian Kathy Griffin's disgusting "artwork" of a bloodied, severed Trump head was rightly condemned in every corner, when it was released recently. It was disrespectful to the office of the president and represented a new low in the country's already polarized environment. But it doesn't come with the historical baggage that accompanied every horrific representation of Obama
, whether it be his likeness hung from a noose and burned
, as happened in Kentucky during Obama's run for his first term, or his image being worn as a costume,
with a noose around the neck, at a University of Wisconsin football game, as happened last November, just before Election Day.
Any threat to any president is a serious matter. It's an attack on the heart of our democracy. That's why the Secret Service followed up on threats
that shock jocker Ted Nugent made against Obama in 2012, as well as Griffin's stunt. Americans generally don't mind their tax dollars being spent to protect first families because they know the history: of an unprotected Abraham Lincoln being shot at a play, for example, and a somewhat better-protected John F. Kennedy being shot in his car and a shooter managing to wound Ronald Reagan, even amid his Secret Service detail.
We accept the need to protect the president and that's as it should be. But it was still different for Obama. He took office in 2009 as the first black man to lead a country that has a history of race-based enslavement, that saw a century of routine lynchings of black men and women (and some white people who supported black civil rights) and endured high-profile killings of civil rights figures, the most prominent being the non-violent Martin Luther King Jr.
That's why when I became the first black person to serve as my newspaper's first full-time lead columnist in the heart of the South, I'd get weekly calls from elderly black residents saying they would be praying for me -- because they literally thought my life was in danger. Those fears are built upon an American history that reaches back to the curtailing of Reconstruction by violent white mobs, angry that black people had begun making gains in positions of leadership after the end of slavery. Racists in America have often taken black progress as a threat, and nothing signified that more than Obama's ascension to the presidency.
When conservatives howled about what Griffin did to a fictional Trump, it was understandable. But that they did not show that outrage about all the times and ways Obama was depicted was deeply disappointing to recall. The problem, of course, is that it is exceedingly difficult to have these discussions with those who have knee-jerk defensive reactions when reminded about these ugly parts of our history and how these events still resonate today.
Although all such portrayals should be condemned, some tap into a reservoir of racial hate that we are still grappling with more than other kinds of hate: the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented
a spike in race- and ethnic-based incidents since November.
What Griffin did was stupid and reprehensible. The rise in open hatred is more than that. It is dangerous.