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President Obama's Elevator (Update)

07/23/2013 02:51 pm ET | Updated Sep 22, 2013

In 2004, Barack Obama became the freshman U.S. senator for Illinois by winning the vote -- including mine -- by a landslide. So it was with high hopes that I set off on July 16, 2007, for a presidential campaign contributors' breakfast speech in the office building where the Obamas first met.

A friendly crowd of mostly-male business-types assembled dressed in dark-colored suits. I stood out in a bright plum colored blouse and happened to be seated directly in (then) Senator Obama's line of sight. Unlike the rest of the breakfasters, I took notes on a bright yellow legal pad.

When it came time for questions, mine was the first hand up. Senator Obama saw my hand, looked away, and looked back again. Finally, another hand went up and he took that question and other questions, but he never took mine (on Iran), despite the fact that I kept raising my hand.

One man quipped: "You intimidated the next president of the United States!" But the evidence only shows that he didn't take my question. That was his call. There's reasonable doubt as to whether he felt intimidated.

The Elevator

On Friday, President Obama gave an off-the-cuff speech at the White House, and he raised other issues:

"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."

President Obama merely mentioned "a woman," and he didn't mention any particular race. He was talking about his own experience, but I guarantee you, men of every race have had that experience.

Even POTUS Can't Make This Call

Oprah Winfrey, a victim of childhood sexual abuse from a 19-year-old relative, had a discussion with safety expert Gavin de Becker and opened with this observation: "We've all been in this situation, where you want to be nice, you don't want to make the other person feel that you are rude, and women especially do this at our own risk." It's better to appear rude than take safety risks. That goes double with strange men in confined spaces.

It's possible POTUS sensed wariness in some women, because of the well-publicized high crime rates in black communities and the spill-over into other communities. Those statistics are well publicized, and they are simply a matter of fact. She's read the odds, and she's refusing to gamble with her safety. POTUS has nothing to resent, except the disproportionate incidents of violent crime.

If you're a man and you see that a strange woman in an elevator is wary of you, you might think to yourself: Good for her. It's her call, not mine. The more civil society becomes, the more civil the individual man, the more relaxed most women will be with strangers, and even then, safety is her call.

Hate Crimes

What does a hate crime victim look like? If you consider sexual violence as a hate crime -- many are advocating for this classification -- the numbers may surprise you. According to our government:

• Of the 6,222 reported hate crimes In 2011, 6,216 were single-bias incidents -- 46.9 percent were racially motivated, 20.8 percent resulted from sexual orientation bias, 19.8 percent were motivated by religious bias, 11.6 percent stemmed from ethnicity/national origin bias, and 0.9 percent were prompted by disability bias. The source for this information is the FBI's hate crime accounting.

• The U.S. Department of Justice's National Crime Victimization Survey shows there is an average of 207,754 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year.

Here are a couple of recent examples from the black community in President Obama's home town, Chicago.

Black Women Are In the Elevator

When it comes to knowing what it feels like to be followed by large men that you don't want following you, women are experts on the topic. They are usually (but not always) followed by men of their own race.

I'm not a lesbian, so I can't claim to know the daily experiences of the lesbian community, but this news item from the Advocate caught my eye: "Suspect Charged with Hate Crime in Brutal Attack of Chicago Lesbian Couple."

So far, one African-American male, 24, is in custody for the beating of two African American women. Up to ten men were reportedly involved in the beating.

The women were first followed by one man, and the couple asked him to leave them alone. Then a second man arrived and cursed them. Eventually a group of men joined in a physical melee and hurled anti-gay insults. According to Adam Sege at the Chicago Tribune (July 11):

The first man took a swing and punched...[the women] fought back and other men quickly joined in, dragging the women apart.

The couple struggled to get back together, pressed against a car as the beating continued and no one came by to help. [One of the women] said: "I didn't think we were going to make it out."

Finally, one of the men said the police were coming. The attackers, laughing, fled... Both women had lost their shoes in the scramble, and someone had ripped one of the victim's shirt off. The men stole their phones and cash.


Hero's Reward: A Hate Crime

On June 21, 2013, Michael Davis, 44, an African-American man, was ambushed and nearly beaten to death with a baseball bat by two male African-American assailants. Apparently they attacked Davis because of an earlier incident in a bar where the suspects quarreled with regular patrons. When they were asked to leave, the pair claimed it was because they are black. A white patron asked them why they were trying to make it about race. Then the suspects turned violent. According to Benjamin Woodard at DNAnifo Chicago (June 21):

One of the suspects then pushed the [white] patron from his bar stool and onto the floor, which led Davis to step between them and force the two attackers out onto the sidewalk, witnesses said.

"When they spilled outside, that's when I got in between them," said Josh Jacobson, who was playing bag toss at the time.

The attackers accused Davis, who is black, of standing up for the "white man" and that he was an "Uncle Tom," witnesses said.

To my knowledge, this has not yet been classified as a hate crime, but it sounds like one. As of June 21, doctors still didn't know whether Mr. Davis would have permanent brain damage.

Hispanic Women Are In the Elevator, Too

On Monday, July 22, Joanna Hernandez and a friend were robbed at both knife point and gun point by four black men in Chicago's River North neighborhood. According to Rosemary Regina Sobol at the Chicago Tribune:

The four pushed the women against a wall underneath a bridge... Her friend reached into her purse but kept dropping singles to the ground, angering one of the robbers...

"Stop it!" he yelled, according to Hernandez. "He had a gun to Amy's temple."

Fortunately, both women are uninjured after the armed robbery.

You Decide: Going Up?

To his great credit, President Obama didn't claim to have the answers to the complicated issues he raised. He did say that we have to work on these issues. Many people have already heard President Obama's speech and everyone can listen to it again here.

I'd like to recall the words of an earlier leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He's not with us today, because of a hate crime. He was assassinated in 1968 by James Earl Ray, a white man. But the biggest safety threat to African Americans today comes from other members of their community.

Here's what Dr. King had to say about crime within the black community in 1961, and the general situation is still true today:

Do you know that Negroes are 10 percent of the population of St. Louis and are responsible for 58 percent of its crimes? We've got to face that. And we've got to do something about our moral standards. We know that there are many things wrong in the white world, but there are many things wrong in the black world, too. We can't keep on blaming the white man. There are things we must do for ourselves.

I didn't find the quote on my own. Jason L. Riley at the Wall Street Journal found it for his excellent July 15 article: "Race, Politics and the Zimmerman Trial." After he published, he was accused of making it up.

Riley wrote a follow-up on July 18 citing the quote's source: "A James Baldwin profile of King that appeared in a 1961 issue of Harper's Magazine. I was a little taken aback by the accusation, and not just because the Harper's piece can be located and read without too much effort via Google."

Riley's accusers "apparently just couldn't believe that the nation's most prominent civil rights leaders used to speak this way about problems in the black community and the role of personal responsibility."

President Obama's speech sparked heated debates. We can choose to push each other's buttons, but we don't have to. We're all riding in President Obama's elevator together. There are better things to push, if we want to head in a better direction.

Update July 24, 2013: Some girls will never have the chance to become a woman in President Obama's elevator. A six-year-old Chicago girl was caught in the crossfire at a memorial service for a man who was shot to death in 2008. She was riding her scooter, and a bullet passed right through her chest. She died within minutes. She was shot in the early evening on Friday, the same day President Obama gave his speech.

Chicago has very strict gun control laws, yet bullets fly daily in predominately African American neighborhoods. There were more shooting deaths of black men in Chicago than of U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2012.

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