Obama Stands His Ground

By speaking forthright about his own experience as a black American, again he raised the level of discourse in the country to one above talking points and pretended offense. He opened himself up to the ridiculous misinterpretations that are plaguing the Internet, those who will take his words out of context, to reshape them into something unworthy of a President. But it wasn’t.

Obama made his first big splash on the national stage at the 2004 DNC. He gave a speech that invoked his white mother and black Kenyan father. He was young, articulate, smart. He sounded like we wanted our representatives to sound like, especially when we had the moronic bumblings of George W. as our face on the world stage.

But I wasn’t paying much attention then. I didn’t think he stood a chance.

It was only after Spitzer’s fall from grace (or whatever her name was, to steal a one-liner  from Colbert) that I tuned in to Barack Obama and started taking note. It was in March of 2008 and my political hero disappointed me, to say the least. Spitzer had been to me the guy to cut through all of the bullshit, to call Wall Street for what it was. I remember thinking, This guy must be squeaky clean. If he has made any missteps in his life, surely they would have gone after it. Spoiler alert: He did. And they did.

The democratic presidential race was still a muddle of candidates then, each tearing the other down, the media fanning the fires of divisiveness. Hillary Clinton was the front-runner. John Edwards was in there. Joe Biden. Kucinich. They were all making the late night talk show rounds, appearing on the Daily Show. I wasn’t too invested at that time. There were debates to come, scandals to be exposed, alliances re-aligned. It seemed pointless really.

Barack Obama was gaining traction and supposed dirty deeds and telling associations were coming out of the woodwork, most infamous among them, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. When Obama stood up and addressed that in March 2008, and made the effort to talk about race the way I’d never seen anyone do before, not anyone with so much to lose just by acknowledging this issue, I effectively replaced Spitzer with a new political hero. His words sought to make one culture and class of Americans understand the other, much like his did on Friday.

 

But for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn’t make it – those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations – those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future. Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways. For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician’s own failings.

 

On television, they call it breaking down the fourth wall, the imaginary line that separates the character onscreen from its audience. They sit around a kitchen table, positioned around it to face a camera, but it’s a rule to ignore it, to pretend the audience isn’t there.

A similar rule has come into existence since the inception of Obama’s administration: he  is not to address race. To do so would be to give credence to every racist’s nightmare: admit that we elected a black guy, who sees things from a black perspective, and might dare to speak to that or legislate as such, undermining centuries of white aristocracy.

Obama has joked about it. When he made his entrance to the White House Correspondents Dinner, he swapped out “Hail to the Chief” for rap music. “Rush Limbaugh warned you about this,” he said. “Second term, baby.”

Yet by breaking down that wall we can all exhale and have an actual conversation that isn’t insulated by the pretense we were all participating in. In his impromptu speech regarding Trayvon Martin on Friday, the president had a real, off the cuff moment. It was heartfelt. There was no teleprompter. He spoke to the indisputable disparity between how laws are written and enforced along racial lines. He spoke about the violent history that informs the experience black Americans face. And he spoke about his personal experience.

It has the country up in arms because it was something we rarely see from someone in such high office. In fact, it’s something we haven’t seen Obama himself address since 2008. We see watered-down and contrived rhetoric, designed to offend the least amount of people possible. An impossible task, but a goal so many deem worthy. Yet, in its in-offense, so many words fail to stick. This is why Joe Biden resonates. He might be gaffe-prone, but only because he speaks in real sentences, unlike political robots of the Rubio variety.

By acknowledging that there’s a documented disparity to how our laws are enforced along racial lines, he’s now being accused of anything from fanning the flames of racism and exacerbating an already heated moment to being a blatant racist himself. I’m no Obama apologist. I’ve been equally vocal about how his policies as President have either expanded upon George Bush’s disastrous ones that preceded him or have shown a rampant dismissal of civil liberties. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that there are no political heroes.

Yet, by speaking forthright about his own experience as a black American, again he raised the level of discourse in the country to one above talking points and pretended offense. He opened himself up to the ridiculous misinterpretations that are plaguing the Internet, those who will take his words out of context, to reshape them into something unworthy of a President. But it wasn’t.

Because here’s the deal: the stains of the race issue touch each of us. If we’re not working to fix it, if we’re complacent, we add to it. We fix it by talking about it in real terms. By looking at it without unequal comparisons. By acknowledging our roles. We tackle this in real, unscripted moments.

This is where heroism could be found.

Author: Jaime Franchi

Jaime Franchi is a freelance writer living on Long Island. Her work can be found on Salon.com, Milieu Magazine, Punchnel's and the New York Times. www.JaimeFranchi.com

8 thoughts on “Obama Stands His Ground”

  1. Well said, as always. I thought Obama’s talk was one of the best moments of his second term so far. However, I’ve heard many people talking about soul searching; I’ve heard few people actually doing it. Apparently, soul searching is something we only expect other people to do. That’s not a good sign for the future.

  2. Yes, Shelby Steele – the guy who published a book in 2007 titled “Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win.” Analysis you can trust!

  3. @Richard – thank you, as always. I agree with you that the term “soul searching” has become an empty term that sounds good but means little.

    @Clifford – Hello there. We can argue about what this case was really about, but what I wanted to explore was Obama’s speech and particularly how his talks about race are interpreted. The “rule of law” needs to be looked at both in how it is conceived and in how it is enforced. Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Obama is the only one who can speak about race from both his position and his skin. He COULD have avoided it, and there are people who wish he’d done it more forcefully (or whatever), but he puts his psyche and his life on the line every moment he’s in the white house and ups that by multiples on those occasions when he speaks about race.

    Richard is so right about soul-searching. “YOU soul-search bud – I know where mine is.” A lot of good articles have been published since the Z business, but from people already “on-side”. The “other side” just fulminates.

    And I just saw some depressing bit about how “most Americans” think blacks are more racist than whites or any other minority. Well, I daresay they think and talk about race more than other people, but that’s hardly spontaneous and arising from within – it’s a reaction to their experience. And if they thought badly about the white race (which I guess is what is meant – when I think of white racists I think of white people who hold negative views of blacks), who could blame them?

    Obama’s election – twice! – must have been a source of hope, but in many ways it’s exacerbated ‘race relations’, such is the perversity of humankind.

  5. My mother “came out” as having African-American blood shortly before she died. She literally coded it so that I would understand and that her caregiver would be somewhat confused.

    During my dating years, I dated some boys/men of color. My father took me aside and told me that if I married a black man to marry a dark one, otherwise our children might be darker than either one of us and (I kid you not), that the neighbors might think I was fooling around.

    I suspect my mother and her sister were sworn to secrecy about my maternal grandfather being black, because he could pass, and she only violated that oath to tell my father, before they married. She was a woman of her word, so she had to “make the puzzle” and leave just enough undone that I would figure it out.

  6. I found this article interesting though, not surprising. For years now I have tuned out 95% of what politicians say since, in fact, they don’t seem to say much of anything. President Obama has done what we would once collectively have called being genuine, and displaying leadership. The tradition of such speech from leaders has long transitioned from the admirable perspective of “taking a stand” to making candid remarks, and finally, and I truly hate this one, to spin. I decided when spin, once the covert province of political advisers and PR experts, involving work behind the scenes aimed at using the twisting of facts to shape public opinion, became an accepted term for an equally accepted technique, that the time of honorable communication in politics was over. I am even more astonished that in the same way we have denied prejudice, we have ignored the incredible healing of our collective election of a Black man as president. With a whisper, Black Americans have become an empowered part of the political landscape. The reaction, pot shots by from factions alleging prejudicial perspective and subversive motives to our President. Is it possible that of the speech a questionably documented war veteran with an overly developed focus on national defense is acceptable where the comments of this; soft spoken, seemingly honest, man, speaking without apparent bitterness and with personal courage is less acceptable? If so perhaps we should review the presidential job description.
    By Alex Anlyan
    AKA – pndrgn99

  7. He’s been so remarkably poised in the face of such unfair criticism and abuse that the ‘fourth wall’ seemed to be rebuilding itself.
    Luckily Opportunity and necessity rose from public racial foment over this one
    Verdict for him to comment in a way no previous president could.
    Frankly, if he hadn’t I’d be thinking differently of him right now. Still,
    I’m afraid it’s lost on a great many Americans that this is even vaguely heroic.
    The pace of improvement in people’s actual acceptance of one another seems intolerably slow, but we owe it to the generations who all had it harder than we have it to be diligent and face challenges with a clear head. That’s all he did. It shouldn’t be so hard.

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