The news channels and talk radio were abuzz Jan. 11 with news of racially-tinged remarks about race and the American president from Democratic leader Harry Reid and former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich. The remarks by Sen. Reid, in particular, drew condemnation for his observation that Mr. Obama’s chances to be elected president were enhanced by the light skin color and his ability to speak without a “Negro dialect.”
Meanwhile the beleaguered former governor of the president’s home state apologized following his disclosures to Esquire magazine that between shining shoes and growing up in a five room apartment he was “Blacker” than Mr. Obama.
Race, the ugly underside of the American psyche and the national nasty virus that just won’t go away, has surfaced again. The Republicans, including its Black chair, pilloried Sen. Reid demanding that he give up his post as Dems worried that the latest controversy could doom the already beseiged Democratic leader. The Nevada lawmaker, who is hoping to win reelection and return to support Mr. Obama’s agenda, faces long odds in coming out on top in November. He was already suffering from low approval ratings before words he spoke during the presidential campaign were shared in “Game Change,” a book about the 2008 election.
Mr. Reid quickly, profusely and repeatedly apologized for his poor choice of words and Black Dems rushed to his defense, saying the language was not good but Sen. Reid was an ally on Capitol Hill.
The president quickly accepted the apology and swiftly tried to move on in his latest version of a bobbing and weaving strategy that emerges when it comes to race.
The sad fact is despite so much hope and back slapping about racial change in America, little has changed. One example of the lack of change is the country’s inability to even discuss the problem of race in American society and why Sen. Reid’s remarks, though objectionable, remain true. Why must there always be a comfort level that Blacks must conform to in order to “succeed” in this society? Part of making Whites comfortable is not talking about race, “talking White,” following the norms of White culture and social behavior, and looking the other way when racial gaffes and insults surface. These things may appease Whites and relieve their anxiety and fears, but what does this constant denial do to Blacks in American society? What does it do to the Black psyche when the role of smiling grantor of forgiveness must be played–whether you are a president, a Black golfer warned not to bring watermelon and collard greens to a formal dinner; an office worker who endures White attempts at mouthing slang or reciting rap lyrics laced with niggerisms; or a Black supervisor whose subordinates refuse to obey, while White higher-ups look the other way?
No one on any side of this debate really wants to openly and honestly deal with the problem of race in America.
“There is this standard where the Democrats feel that they can say these things and they can apologize when it comes from the mouths of their own. But if it comes from anyone else, its racism,” said Michael Steele, the GOP mouthpiece. “It’s either racist or it’s not. And it’s inappropriate, absolutely.”
Republican Party Chairman Steele, who almost certainly would not be in his post if Mr. Obama had lost, can shout until he’s hoarse about how the GOP suffers from a double standard when it comes to racially insensitive language, but it doesn’t matter. Mr. Steele lacks credibility because he dodges the issue when blatant racism rises within his party and membership. He bobs and weaves and parrots racial mumbo-jumbo, just as the president runs away from anything that could concern race in any way.
America’s addiction to racial denial isn’t new and it’s not surprising. When the founders wrote about the God-given right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, they didn’t see their Black slaves suffering in chains. When the decision was made to count slaves, it was only done to buttress the political power of their masters. It might as well have been assigning political representation based on the population of cattle or chickens since Blacks were simply property with no rights in the eyes of the architects of the world’s greatest democracy.
Racial denial is ingrained into America’s collective mindset–take it or leave it.
According to the Associated Press, “ ‘Game Change,’ Time Magazine’s Mark Halperin and New York magazine’s John Heilemann report that Reid ‘was wowed by Obama’s oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a Black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama–a ‘light-skinned’ African American ‘with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,’ as he later put it privately.”
The controversy could also leave an unlikely victim in its wake–the president himself. After watching Mr. Obama skirt, skate around and dodge the race issue, some are calling for the first Black president to deal directly with this sensitive subject.
Author and scholar Michael Eric Dyson, an early and vocal supporter of Mr. Obama, was one of the voices calling for the president to take this latest controversy and turn it into a teachable moment. The problem is the classroom is set, but the professor won’t show up, Dr. Dyson said.