The day after Barack Obama won the 2008 South Carolina primary, an elderly white woman tendered words of affection to my 11-month-old son. I smiled, but was thinking, Wait until he’s 15, lady, and you’ll be crossing the road to avoid him. There can be few less generous responses to an expression of human kindness.
For all I knew, she could have been one of the 10 percent of white female Democratic primary voters in the state who backed Obama, some of whom had chanted “Race Doesn’t Matter” at his victory celebrations the night before. And even if she wasn’t, odds don’t justify prejudice; they simply compound it. Nonetheless, through those earlier years of parenting I would often wonder, as the cooing started, how a world so enthralled by this black baby could create a system so likely to jail or kill him as an adult. As cynical as my response may have been, it was not without foundation.
For there is something about children that can, if only momentarily, unlock an aspect of people’s humanity and, therefore, progressive political potential that would otherwise remain inaccessible. A child’s presence, and fate, can make hardened positions soften and hot potatoes cool.
Take gun control. On the day registration opened at the 2012 National Rifle Association convention, the face of George Zimmerman—Trayvon Martin’s killer—peered from every newsstand following his arrest. But the prospect of gun control seemed as remote as ever. The July day a gunman sprayed a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, with gunfire, killing twelve people and injuring fifty-eight, Barack Obama said, “There are going to be other days for politics. This is…a day for prayer and reflection.” In the months of electoral politics that ensued, the day when the candidates would seriously discuss gun control never arrived.
It would take a shooter walking into an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, and killing twenty children and six adults and injuring two more before the nation’s political class became sufficiently emboldened to take on gun manufacturers and their advocates. It was as though the country just couldn’t see the problem clearly enough until a large number of children had suffered. “Seeing the massacre of so many innocent children, it’s changed, it’s changed America,” said West Virginia’s Democratic senator, Joe Manchin. “We’ve never seen this happen.”
The British hacking scandal involving Rupert Murdoch’s News International revealed a similar tipping point. For several years a range of celebrities, royal figures and politicians claimed their phones had been hacked by the News of the World tabloid. The paper’s royal editor and a private investigator were convicted and imprisoned. Some prominent figures settled out of court. Murdoch looked like he would tough it out.