‘The first black president should [insert assumption]‘

Newsweek just published a mostly astute piece by Jacob Weisbert about Obama’s failure of moral leadership on civil rights issues like immigration, Islamophobia and LGBT rights. Joe posted it here. But there is one sentence that I have an issue with:

How dismal that America’s first black president will be remembered as shirking the last great civil-rights struggle.

Now, I agree that Obama should show more moral courage in addressing civil rights issues, but the “first black president” reference always grates on me, and I hear it a lot. It’s almost obligatory these days, as in “the first black president” should do this or “the first black president” should stand for that. Using this phrase in this context is evaluating someone on the basis of a physical characteristic. Granted, it’s not as egregious as tea partiers showing pictures of watermelons on the white house lawn, but it’s troubling nonetheless.

The problem I have with this phrase is the assumption that Obama will be more understanding of struggles against prejudice because he has had to struggle with it himself. Well, maybe he will, and maybe he won’t. (Look at Clarence Thomas.) We should expect every president to stand up for equal treatment under the law, regardless of race, sex or sexual orientation.

No one wants to perceived as a token, nor should they be. I know I would be uncomfortable if people were constantly telling me “as a lesbian you should understand” or “as a gay person, how can you…”, even if the attribute I am assumed to share is a positive one. Once you start making assumptions and grouping people according to physical characteristics, it’s a small step to assuming negative attributes, like “lesbians just need a good f*!%” or “all gays are child molesters.”

I think Obama deserves criticism. But people should be judged as individuals on the basis of their actions, not whether they conform to a stereotype, even if that stereotype can arguably be construed as positive. Maybe that sentiment sounds trite, but it doesn’t make it less true.

Liz Newcomb is an attorney by day and committed LGBT activist by night and weekend. She has worked as a researcher at the Williams Institute. While in law school at UCLA, she was Articles Editor of the LGBT law journal. Liz lives in West Hollywood with her wife, Lynne. They are one of the 18,000 California same-sex couples who got married during the summer before proposition 8 passed. Liz has lived in California for over 20 years and brings a left coast perspective to AMERICAblog.

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