When was the last time you saw your black male colleague, especially if you're in a white-collar profession, show anger or rage in public? My hunch is never. The reason? African-American men are taught at very young ages (or learn the hard way) to keep our emotions in check, to not lose our cool, lest we be perceived as dangerous or menacing or give someone a reason to doubt our ability to handle our jobs. Think of the emotional corset women in leadership positions are expected to maintain to ensure they never cry in public or show too much compassion for fear of raising doubt and seeming weak.
Over the past two weeks, I have watched with increasing frustration the criticism that President Barack Obama hasn't shown enough emotion — read: outrage — over the BP oil spill. Sure, I, too, have asked the president to connect more with the American people over this disaster. But I would never advise Obama to do what movie director Spike Lee suggested: "One time, go off!"
We all know one reason Obama won't "go off." He's just not wired that way. Overt expressions of rage (or any overheated emotion) are not in his personality.
But there are other reasons he can't "go off." Consider the Angry Black Man, that bogeyman who haunts many African-American men, particularly professionals, who scares us into zen-like tranquility when fury is warranted, whether or not we are prone to it. The 2009 arrest of professor Henry Louis Gates in his own home after he mouthed off to police investigating reports of a break-in is a prime example of what can go wrong. As a Facebook friend wrote after my post on Obama's third trip to Louisiana last Friday, "If Obama were to display anger he runs the risk of … becoming too scary or threatening to the public, immediately nonpresidential!"
In truth, Clarence Thomas' controlled-burn response to allegations of sexual harassment during his 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings — which he called a "high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves" — was the closest we've come to seeing rage from a black man on such a prominent stage.
Americans expect their presidents to be calm in a crisis. But we have to recognize that Obama already has this manner (or skill) mastered because it attaches to any black professional, especially those in positions of authority.
There are a number of questions to be considered here: whether there are certain ways it is acceptable for black men (as opposed to others) to behave, whether it is fair or appropriate to define Obama or his presidency in terms of his being a black man, and whether Obama should emote just to please the media or anyone else. As one Democratic strategist told me: "I don't need my president to feel my pain. I need my president to take on problems and solve them." This is where I and the American people are in agreement.
Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Washington Post editorial page staff.
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