Barack Obama gives the commencement address at Morehouse College, May 19, 2013. (Reuters/Jason Reed)

The time Obama was mistaken for a waiter

Just a year before he became a household name, the future president was asked to fetch a drink


Alex Seitz-Wald
July 20, 2013 2:00AM (UTC)

"Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago," President Obama said in his often personal speech today on race and the trial of George Zimmerman, the man who killed the Florida teen. Obama continued by noting the small injustices he has personally experienced as a black man:

There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. And there are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.

The immediate reaction from the right was scorn, and a belittling of the notion that Barack Obama, with his elite education at Punahou and Columbia and Harvard, his meteoric success, and his half whiteness, could possibly have been profiled. Or that Obama was overreacting -- everyone locks their doors and it has nothing to do with race. Martin, after all, has been vilified as a thug in some circles on the right.

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"I'm not saying profiling never happens, but where is the evidence?" one Fox News guest protested. "So Obama 'could have been' Trayvon 35 yrs ago? I had no idea Obama sucker-punched a watch volunteer & then bashed his head in. Who knew?" talk radio host Tammy Bruce tweeted. "There’s no reason to believe that Martin could have been Obama 35 years ago," the conservative Powerline blog commented. On Twitter, some guessed Obama had "never set foot in a department store, unless you count Barney's."

On his radio show, Sean Hannity took a different tack, wondering if the president compared himself to Martin because Obama "smoked pot, and he did a little blow" in his youth (Martin had been found with marijuana at school).

But a stunning little blog post by the Wall Street Journal's Katherine Rosman from 2008 that resurfaced this afternoon tells a remarkable story about Obama the year before his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention that would make him a household name. Rosman was at a book party at the Manhattan home of a Daily Beast editor with a guest list "that can fairly be described as representative of the media elite," when she encountered an unknown Illinois state senator "looking as awkward and out-of-place as I felt." It was Barack Obama, of course, and they chatted at length.

When she left the party, an unnamed "established author" admitted to Rosman that he had mistaken Obama, one of the only black people at the party, for a waiter and asked him to fetch a drink.

That was when he was a state senator and Harvard Law grad, and just a few years from national fame, followed by his election to the Senate, and then the White House. And it was in New York City at a gathering of presumably liberal intellectuals.

And in Obama's second book, The Audacity of Hope, the future president recalls almost identical incidents to the ones he outlined today:

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Alex Seitz-Wald

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Barack Obama Conservatism Race Race Relations Racism Trayvon Martin




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