Reporting from Washington — Last week's congressional hearing over the security mistakes that allowed a publicity-hungry Virginia couple into a White House dinner has put a spotlight on persistent fears among African Americans for President Obama's safety.
"The African American community is watching this president like a hawk," Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said after sitting through the House Homeland Security Committee hearing. "We've lost the great nonviolent heroes of the 20th century, and there is a sense of dread always in the African American community about this president."
That was a subtext at the hearing called by Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the first black chairman of the committee. No one brought up directly how Obama's distinction as the nation's first black president could make him a bigger target. But Thompson acknowledged that he'd sensed a particular concern among African Americans. He warned against trivializing the action of Michaele and Tareq Salahi, reality TV hopefuls.
"This hearing is not about crashing a party at the White House. Neither is it about wannabe celebrities or reality television. On the contrary, this hearing is about real-world threats to the nation," Thompson said in his opening remarks.
Fears over Obama's safety came to the fore during the campaign, when polling showed that blacks were more likely to be concerned that someone might try to harm him. Some blacks talked openly about not voting for Obama out of fear for his life. He was put under Secret Service protection earlier than any presidential candidate in history.
At the time, Thompson issued a plea for vigilance in a letter to then-Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
"As an African American who was witness to some of the nation's most shameful days during the civil rights movement, I know personally that the hatred of some of our fellow citizens can lead to heinous act of violence," he wrote. "We need only to look at the assassinations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and 1968 presidential candidate Robert Kennedy as examples."
The gate-crashing affair shows that such fears have followed Obama into the White House, even though Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan seemed to suggest last week that they were unfounded.
Reports of security lapses at the inauguration, images of armed protesters at healthcare town halls and reports of rising threats against the president have only heightened anxiety, said Joe Madison, known as the Black Eagle on his national talk-radio show.
For most of last week, Madison took calls on the White House party incident. He said callers were overwhelmingly critical of the president's security and wanted the agents who let in the Salahis to be fired.
"The fact is that people are very concerned that the Secret Service has been lax and that they've put the first African American president in harm's way," he said.
Charles Henry, a professor of African American studies at UC Berkeley, said he saw a strong "sense of ownership" toward the president in the attitudes of many blacks.
"There's a protective instinct there," he said.
At Thursday's hearing, Sullivan tried to reassure lawmakers, emphasizing that the Salahis had gone through the proper security checks, even though their names were not on the guest list.
He said that a review of the inaugural security found that reports of lapses were unfounded and that the number of threats against the president had not increased.
"The threats right now and the inappropriate interest that we are seeing," Sullivan said, "is the same level as it has been for the previous two presidents at this point in."