Is President Obama Racist, or Just Blind-ist?

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I really had to laugh to myself when I saw this item at Hot Air, in which New York Governor David Paterson’s wife, Michelle, seems to indicate that race and/or disability may be behind the White House’s attempt to get him not to run.  Here’s what she said:

“You never heard of that before,” Michelle Paterson, in her first comments on the situation, said following a luncheon in Midtown.

“David’s the first African-American governor in the state of New York and he’s being asked to get out of the race. It’s very unusual and it seems very unfair.”…

In a passionate defense of her husband, New York’s first lady, Michelle Paterson, tells News 4 it’s wrong for the White House to get involved in a local race. She admits there have been some very disappointing times recently where it seemed her husband might not be able to survive politically. But she said he’s “a fighter” who is staying in the race. Mrs. Paterson says she believes David’s blindness is contributing to his low poll numbers.

Here’s why I laughed. On Monday, I was playing a game of “What’s the worst possible question I can ask Robert Gibbs at my next briefing?”  It’s an amusing pastime that I engage in on long car trips, or while waiting at the DMV.  It’s actually a helpful exercise, too, but I’ll get to that later.

So, Monday’s entry, as I drove back from Manhattan, was “Robert, did the President ask David Paterson not to run for re-election because he’s black, or because he’s blind?  Or was it the combination of those two factors?”

It’s a useful exercise because it can help to reveal a deeper point from a superficial starting place.  In this case, I’ve sat through many briefings and press conferences in which reporters tried, repeatedly, to get the White House to weigh in on one race or the other, in even the teensiest way, only to be rebuffed.  Eventually, someone would say “OK, how about this: Can you confirm that a Senate race exists in Illinois?”  Gibbs: “It would not be appropriate for the President to comment on another race.”

So, I was really surprised to learn that the White House had asked Paterson not to run for re-election, in a fairly public fashion.  It’s a bad move on several levels, actually, and inconsistent.

First of all, no-one was under any illusions that Paterson earned himself any goodwill with the White House with his handling of the Hillary Clinton Senate seat.  His poll numbers are also not terrific.  Issuing a decree like this isn’t all that necessary, and has no upside for the White House.  The best case scenario is that Paterson steps aside, something that could have been accomplished with more subtle pressure.  Worst case: Paterson defies the White House, and puts a dent in their leadership credibility.

I also found my mock question illustrative of another prickly point in recent political discourse.  The idea that Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” outburst was related to race has not really been framed all that well by the media.  The question isn’t whether Obama’s race made him do that, but whether it failed to prevent it.  Nobody had ever heckled a white President in such a setting, just as no white Democratic New York Governor has had this problem before.

You also have  to wonder if the President would have called an iconic white pop star a “jackass,” and what the reaction to that would have been.

If we’re all being honest, race does frequently have some impact on the way we deal with people.  As a writer, I know I’ve found myself debating the use of seemingly innocuous phrases that could be distracting when applied to a black President.  I recall changing the word “tarred” in reference to a negative campaign ad, for example.

One of the reasons that discussions of race are so poisonous is that the objective, frequently, is not to gain greater understanding, but rather to score points.  That’s really too bad, because this kind of on-the-job learning could be a valuable object lesson  for the rest of us.

I didn’t know the first thing about Joe Wilson before “You lie,” but since then, I’ve been informed that he supported the flying of the Confederate flag, and that he disparaged the illegitimate black daughter of Strom Thurmond.  Still, people can learn and grow, and if Wilson had held a press conference after his outburst to say something like, “Upon reflection, and despite my continued belief in the substance of my objection, I think it is possible that I might not have done that to a white President,” well, a statement like that would impress the hell out of me.  Unfortunately, it would also lead to headlines like “Wilson a Self-Avowed Racist!”

Conversely, the right has already shown no compunction about calling the President a racist, and all Democrats along with him.  So, instead of “teachable moments,” we get ugly little food fights.

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