I thought it’s unusual for me to be able to come to the end of Maureen Dowd’s’ article without any second thoughts on her particular turn of phrases when I’ve read today’s NYT article titled “Reindeer Games,” in which Dowd dealt with Michigan Congressman Kerry Bentivolio’s plan (or dream) to impeach President Obama for mishandling core issues from Benghazi to Obamacare to T.S.A. screenings. - http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/25/opinion/sunday/reindeer-games.html?hp

However, I had a hiccup at the very end of the article:

“The Democrats never impeached W. and they had real grounds: starting a war on false premises and sanctioning torture. “The Republican Party is in a constant struggle between its ego and its id,” Axelrod says, “and the id has mostly won out lately.”

It isn’t the president who should leave. It’s the misguided lawmakers trying to drive him out. For some of the rodeo clowns clamoring for impeachment around the country, Barack Obama’s real crime is presiding while black.”

It sounds like it's saying GOP extremists think it’s a crime for a black person to be President.

Putting aside nonsense of the argument, how can I interpret “while” as a conjunction in the line, “Barack Obama’s real crime is presiding while black”?

OALD at hand defines ‘while’ as a conjunction meaning;

  1. during the time that sth is happening.
  2. at the same time as sth else is happening.
  3. used to contrast two things
  4. (used at the beginning of a sentence) although, in spite of.

Although I think the definition 1. applies to the above text, I’m not confident. Could you paraphrase “presiding while black” with more explicit or concrete wording?

By way of precaution, I’m simply asking grammatical and rhetorical interpretation of a word, ‘while’ used here. Please don't misunderstand. I haven’t the slightest intention to get into any of U.S related political or racial arguments.


I found the article titled “Walking while black in the ‘White gaze’” in Sept 1 NYT, which begins with the following sentence:

“Man, I almost blew you away!”

Those were the terrifying words of a white police officer — one of those who policed black bodies in low income areas in North Philadelphia in the late 1970s — who caught sight of me carrying the new telescope my mother had just purchased for me.

“I thought you had a weapon,” he said.

I got a clue.

  • 4
    It's a slogan that depicts President Obama's detractors as racists. We needn't go into the details here; it's offensive to at least some Americans. Commented Aug 25, 2013 at 4:14
  • 16
    The construction is like "driving while drunk" or "breathing while underwater". And yes, some of Obama's opposition actually do think it is morally wrong that we elected a black president. Racism is very much a fact of life in the US (and everywhere).
    – MetaEd
    Commented Aug 25, 2013 at 4:18
  • 4
    John Lawler. I added “Putting aside nonsense” in my question in my question in anticipation of a kind of 'put the cap on can' reaction. However, this article appeared in one of America’s leading newspapers today and distributed every corner of the world via internet. Even if you turn your eyes away from the factoid, millions of readers and users worldwide should have seen and perused this article. More importantly, I’m not asking your political stand. I’m simply asking gramatical and rhetrical interpletation of a word. I have no interest in racial issue as you are. Commented Aug 25, 2013 at 4:35
  • 4
    Presiding although black.
    – Noah
    Commented Aug 25, 2013 at 4:52
  • 13
    Someone has voted to close this on "because it is about American political opinions". It is not about political opinions and OP specifically stated that: it's about the unusual use of the word while, which has usefully been answered in a answer gaining 15 votes in 6h. And the Q. itself has 6 votes. As a non-American native English-speaker, I understood the intent (as did OP), but not the usage or reason. This is a valid and interesting question.
    – TrevorD
    Commented Aug 25, 2013 at 12:06

1 Answer 1


This is a reference to "driving while black", the term used to describe the "crime" for which black people are frequently pulled over when they are someplace police think they don't belong. Of course the police will claim they didn't come to a complete stop, failed to signal for a turn, drove too slow, etcetera. But they were actually pulled over either to intimidate them, harass them, search for drugs or contraband, and so on.

The use of the term "while" comes from the origin of the expression "driving while intoxicated", which was a reference to driving while under the influence of alcohol/drugs. Of course, "black" isn't a temporary state like "intoxicated". So it isn't a perfect grammatical fit, but it was intended to be ironic and darkly humorous.

The implication is that those who criticize Obama would do so no matter what he does as President because he is black and the specifics of the accusation are just pretense.

  • 3
    David Schwartz. So ‘presiding while black’ is just a play of word with ‘driving while black’? Commented Aug 25, 2013 at 9:08
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    Yes. The construction has also been used in the phrase walking while black and has been applied to stop and frisk practices in which police challenge and search black and Hispanic young men for weapons or other contraband, claiming to have seen suspicious conduct. Many people believe that the practice is abusively applied where there is no suspicious activity, but merely an excuse to search without warrant and is a form of racial profiling, both of which are generally not allowed in the US.
    – bib
    Commented Aug 25, 2013 at 12:08
  • 4
    Amazing, well done for what seems like such a short answer. Also, the phrase is meant to say the person did nothing wrong, and simultaneously the accusers are racists. It is very subtly two statements.
    – AthomSfere
    Commented Aug 25, 2013 at 14:39
  • Yoichi - to be absolutely clear: "Driving while black" is an ingenious, sarcastic, construction, based on the legal terms "driving while drunk" or "driving while under the influence of alcohol". "Driving while black" refers to being hassled by the police, for no reason other than your skin color. So, everyone in the US is aware of the sarcastic phrase "Driving while black". (Note for example if some cop hassled you whilst in the USA, you'd perhaps joke "I was stopped for driving while being asian!") "Presiding while black" is then a further play, on that phrase which is itself a play.
    – Fattie
    Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 7:30
  • @JoeBlow if you don't preface the username with @ you're only notifying David Schwartz, which is a pity.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 8:04

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