The Time Obama Was Mistaken for a Waiter at a Tina Brown Book Party

He was a state senator then, and one of the few African Americans at the elite New York media event.
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Not a waiter. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Obama's frank remarks on race and how he also has been seen as someone less than who he is led journalist Katie Rosman of the Wall Street Journal to resurface a 2008 piece about a 2003 garden party at the Manhattan home of media luminaries Tina Brown, now editor of the Daily Beast, and Harold Evans. The gathering just a little more than 10 years ago was to celebrate Sidney Blumenthal's book The Clinton Wars. Wrote Rosman:

Standing by myself I noticed, on the periphery of the party, a man looking as awkward and out-of-place as I felt. I approached him and introduced myself. He was an Illinois state senator who was running for the U.S. Senate. He was African American, one of a few black people in attendance.

We spoke at length about his campaign. He was charismatic in a quiet, solemn way. I told him I wanted to pitch a profile of him to a national magazine. (The magazine later rejected my proposal.)

The following year I watched as he gave the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, and then won his Senate seat that fall. On Tuesday, Barack Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States.

But it's her kicker that really stands out in light of Obama's comment today that "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."

"What I will always remember," Rosman wrote in 2008, "is as I was leaving that party ... I was approached by another guest, an established author. He asked about the man I had been talking to. Sheepishly he told me he didn't know that Obama was a guest at the party, and had asked him to fetch him a drink. In less than six years, Obama has gone from being mistaken for a waiter among the New York media elite, to the president-elect. What a country."

Indeed.

And yet even as that country elected and then reelected its first black president, the easy assumptions about who black men are have yet to vanish.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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