When outsiders look in on black America
That's why he rolls his eyes at the news media's recent coverage of Barack and Michelle Obama. He calls it "typical," emblematic of the gap in understanding between black and non-black America.
"The brother is black, and he can't throw up a fist?" asked Terry, a West Side bill collector. "That's what we do."
Though Obama has tried to make his skin color an ancillary element of the campaign, the issue of race continually swings front and center, with the predominantly white news media taking on the often-awkward role of interpreting black culture for the masses.
Take, for example, the fist bump Obama gave his wife before officially declaring victory in the Democratic primary campaign. Early news reports of the bump sparked interest on the Internet, so more reporters jumped on the story, and it took on a life of its own. At the height of the frenzy, the fist bump was bizarrely described on Fox News as a "terrorist fist jab."
Even to some non-black voters, this all seemed like overkill, revealing a distinct disconnect between the media and the black community, where a fist bump is as common a gesture as a high-five.
"It's a disconnect that should be expected," said Sherrie Mazingo, a recently retired University of Minnesota journalism professor who studies race and the media. "The mainstream media doesn't know how to accommodate coverage of a black presidential candidate. They don't know how to reconcile this candidacy with their generally limited knowledge of people of color, and black people especially."
At the same time, the non-black public's ignorance of certain elements of African-American culture has at times pushed news coverage.
When controversial video of Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. appeared on the Internet, it became clear that a wide swath of non-black Americans were wholly disconnected from a preaching style common in certain black churches, and unaware of the anger and frustration that persist in parts of the black community.
The public fervor drove the media to report exhaustively on Wright and his connection to Obama. But even within the media, there was confusion as to how much coverage the story deserved, how best to explain the maelstrom of complex religious and racial issues involved, and when to decide it was time to move on.
Watching the whole mess unfold was a bit discouraging for Velma Johnson. She runs a community garden in North Lawndale, and each summer she hires about a half-dozen neighborhood teenagers to tend a neatly mulched splash of bushes and blossoms along Homan Avenue.
Johnson thinks her kids can benefit from perspiration, which she provides, and inspiration, which she thinks can come from Obama's candidacy. But what her young charges are seeing on television and in newspapers, she said, is a stream of campaign stories about "silly things."
A Fox News graphic crudely identifying Michelle Obama as "Obama's Baby Mama." Baseless allegations that Michelle Obama once used the term "whitey." The possible racial symbolism of a black and white dress Michelle Obama wore on a TV show.
Johnson has waited all her life to see a black person with a real chance of becoming president. But she figured that when the time came, that candidate would be scrutinized as a person, not as a black person.
"It seems to me that the media is surprised that there's a black man qualified to run," said Johnson, 40. "So now they feel like they have to dissect every little thing he does."
Her sister-in-law, Maretha Johnson, who also works in the garden program, said she fears the racialized coverage of Obama is clouding what really matters.
"I think Obama's stances on the issues are enough to report on without getting into these ridiculous things like fist bumps and dresses and whatever," she said, shaking her head.
For years, newspapers and television networks have worked to diversify their staffs, and there certainly are people of color covering Obama's campaign. But white reporters and editors still make up a majority of most newsrooms, including the one at the Chicago Tribune.
Many experts believe the media were caught off guard by Obama's rapid political ascension and are now struggling to define such a high-profile candidate of color receiving almost around-the-clock coverage.