When I was a journalism professor in 2005 at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, a white student from the University of Alabama came to my campus and handed me a bullet-ridden sheet of standard copy paper.
It was a target that had been used at a local shooting range.
The image on the target was an enlargement of my photograph published in the Tuscaloosa News with my weekly column. Most of my forehead was shot out, and my eyes and nose were gone. The student said many whites in Tuscaloosa hated me and advised me to be "extra careful."
I was reminded of that experience after reading about Sgt. Ron King, the white firearms instructor recently fired from the Port Canaveral Police Department. He allegedly offered fellow officers shooting targets with a silhouette resembling Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black 17-year-old shot and killed last year in nearby Sanford by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman.
King said that race was not his motivation in attempting to get others to use the targets, which had images of Skittles candy and a bottle of tea, items Trayvon Martin was carrying. I don't believe King. Neither did his boss and those who refused to accept the targets.
I suggest that the racial animus that motivated King represents a major current of the American zeitgeist in 2013.
Look no further than Republican sentiments and spiteful rhetoric surrounding Barack Obama and his presidency. From the beginning, Republicans made it clear that they were going to give the nation's first black president a hard time. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell stated publicly that his No. 1 goal was to make Obama a "one-term president."
In his study, "The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency," Randall Kennedy, a professor of law at Harvard Law School, points out that Obama faces pressures his predecessors never faced.
Most of the president's words and many of his actions and policies are interpreted through the prism of race. After Trayvon Martin was killed, for example, Obama lamented the tragedy in part by saying that if he had a son, "He'd look like Trayvon." Many conservatives pounced, accusing Obama of playing the "race card."
Not so. The president's words reflected the heartfelt sadness of a loving father.
Many of Obama's domestic policies and proposals, including on the economy and affordable health care, are described as the work of a black man determined to establish socialism, redistributing wealth from rich people to blacks and other undeserving groups.
On foreign policy, especially related to the Middle East, the president is seen as the "other," someone who is not truly American even though he was born in the United States. He is accused of weakening the country's image abroad, even endangering our very existence.
The social and cultural lives of the president and the first lady are under a microscope. I don't think we've ever had so much criticism of the first family's vacation spots, modes of travel and entertainment. I cannot help but conclude that it is all about race.
The irony is that Obama was America's best hope of finally improving race relations and perhaps having some honest dialogue. That hope has been squandered. From the beginning, Obama has done his best to avoid racial issues. In fact, he's angered and disappointed many blacks precisely because he hasn't given them special attention.
In her book, The Obamas, Jodi Kantor writes that a close friend of Obama told her this: "The first black president doesn't want to give any insight into being the first black president."
That friend was right. Obama has tried to govern as an American. Conservatives are the ones who play the race card. In his dignified way, Obama is serving as the president of all the people.
[Bill Maxwell first joined the Times in 1994 as an editorial writer. He also wrote a twice-weekly column. In 2004, he left to teach journalism and establish a program at Stillman College in Alabama, but he returned to the board in August 2006.
A native of Fort Lauderdale, Maxwell was reared in a migrant farming family. After a short time in college and the U.S. Marine Corps, he returned to school. During his college years, he worked as an urban organizer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and wrote for several civil rights publications. He first began teaching college English in 1973 at Kennedy-King College in Chicago and continued to teach for 18 years. Before joining the Times, Maxwell spent six years writing a weekly column for the Gainesville Sun and the New York Times syndicate. Before that, Maxwell was an investigative reporter for the Fort Pierce Tribune in Fort Pierce, where he focused on labor and migrant farm worker affairs.]