Thursday, January 23, 2014

Context: race

I fell into a trap this week along with many others.  I saw a headline, clicked through and speed-read the summary of the article.  I then came to a series of conclusions based on the reporting, the source of the reporting and the context as presented.  In all it took less than a minute.  I set aside the link and the story – knowing it’d be great fodder for this week’s blog.  On the celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday, President Obama said  “There’s no doubt that there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black President.” His interview with The New Yorker continued:  “Now, the flip side of it is there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I’m a black President.”  These quotes are quite revealing from the nation’s first black President who has studiously avoided too much race-oriented discussions.  I was surprised to see this and easily jumped to a conclusion - until I understood the remarks in their context. 

The President was responding to a statement from the reporter who said:  “The popular opposition to the Administration comes largely from older whites who feel threatened, underemployed, overlooked, and disdained in a globalized economy and in an increasingly diverse country. Obama’s drop in the polls in 2013 was especially grave among white voters.” 

Out of context President Obama is blaming his drop in the polls, the discord in Washington, all of the problems on the fact that he’s black and white people don’t like black people.  It’s a simplification, but a relatively easy extrapolation of what he said.  Fox News has certainly done that throughout the week as that narrative fits nicely into their caricature of Obama.

In context the President nullifies the premise by saying that there may be people who like him for being black and there may be people who don’t like him for the same reason – essentially quashing the concept that race plays a significant role. 

Why was it so easy to believe that Obama would jump on the Al Sharpton race baiting wagon?  The President has been ineffective in his policies (and in his communication of his policies) that it was logical he would look for another reason to assign blame.  When other Presidents get into difficulty there is always something to blame:  The vast right wing conspiracy, the liberal media, etc.  In this case it was pretty easy to conclude that this President would use race to deflect responsibility.

Blaming others is a hallmark of politics, and this Administration is no different than others. There have been a variety of embarrassments and outright failures under this President and yet nobody has been held accountable.  Instead there have been justifications, finger pointing at others and legitimate claims of obfuscation.  No responsibility is taken.  In this environment, then, it is actually quite reasonable to believe that race would become the scapegoat for why something had gone wrong, even though it turns out not to be true.  And that’s incredibly tragic for our discourse and our future where there is a real substantive debate about race, class and other 'isms' that are muted.  Let's put the issues into their legitimate context.

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