Opinion

Commentary: Some people will always view Obama through lens of race

The issue of race will dog Barack Obama the entire time he occupies the White House.

It's why former president Jimmy Carter was right to say, "There is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president."

Loud denials have tried to shout down Carter's truth-telling, which exposed some folks' attempts to subvert, challenge and minimize Obama's authority. But racism is real, prodding some people to blast Obama on health care reform, his speaking to schoolchildren and his economic recovery efforts.

Examples include a New York Post editorial cartoon depicting Obama as a monkey being shot by police saying, "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill." Rep. Lynn Jenkins of Kansas apologized after telling a group last month the GOP was still searching for a "great white hope" to stop Obama's political agenda. Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri deservedly is taking heat now for using a tale comparing Obama and Washington Democrats to jungle monkeys disrupting civilized endeavors.

The capstone was GOP Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina's outburst during Obama's speech to Congress. Wilson said, "You lie!" when Obama said no illegal immigrants would get government sponsored health care. It was unprecedented in its disrespect.

It is difficult for people who rarely or never rub shoulders with minorities to see the racial ties. But contending with slurs, denials and apologies is part of being a person of color in America. It's like being bitten by a thousand mosquitoes. None of the bites is fatal, but the scratching and irritation leave a lot of scars, and valuable energy and time are wasted that could have been devoted to other things.

Obama's troubles resurrect a quote from Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney, whom James W. Loewen cites in his book, "Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism." Taney in the 1857 Dred Scott runaway slave case out of St. Louis wrote that blacks were "so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."

Certainly times have changed. But Obama must expect his authority to constantly be challenged by living ghosts from America's racist past.

W.E.B. Du Bois prophesied in 1903, "The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color-line." The line has moved into the 21st century, with people still falling over it.

Peggy McIntosh, associate director of the Centers for Women at Wellesley College, offers the best instruction to help people overcome America's racist history. First people have to acknowledge the presence of white privilege and see how it affects a lot of folks’ view of Obama.

McIntosh lists more than five dozen points of privilege that whites generally have but minorities don't. What's also clear is that the combination of those points of white privilege when applied to Obama makes race-based objections to everything he does even more obvious.

For example, McIntosh, who is white, notes: "When I am told about our national heritage or about 'civilization,' I am shown that people of my color made it what it is." Even though Obama occupies the highest office in the land, his color will never fit this point of white privilege. That has a jarring effect on some people.

Another McIntosh point: "If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones." People differ greatly here. But because of this country's history, doubt will always surround whether opposition to Obama is race-based.

A third McIntosh point: "If I get angry and ask to speak to 'the person in charge,' I can be fairly sure I will be talking to a person of my race." So it's a plus for black people that Obama is president, but a new area of frustration for whites.

Denying white privilege enables some people to conveniently hide their racial animosity for Obama. The doubt others face and the angry fallout to anything Obama touches cause many progressive folks to remain silent.

Thank goodness Jimmy Carter had the guts to speak out. To end the nationwide racial scratching and irritation, Obama must, too, and it must be more than a beer summit.

  Comments