Monday, June 1, 2015

The Disturbing Politics of Race and Class In the 'Age of Obama' (2008-Present): Truth vs. Mythology


What follows is the first article (of thousands!) that appeared on GOOGLE in response to the following posted statement:

"Black Americans are in deep political trouble in the 'Age of Obama'"

THINK about what this all "means" because the ugly truth is that it's only going to get MUCH WORSE very soon...If you don't believe this obvious fact all I can say is WATCH AND SEE...

Sunday Review | Opinion

Political Racism in the Age of Obama
November 10, 2012
New York Times


THE white students at Ole Miss who greeted President Obama’s decisive re-election with racial slurs and nasty disruptions on Tuesday night show that the long shadows of race still hang eerily over us. Four years ago, when Mr. Obama became our first African-American president by putting together an impressive coalition of white, black and Latino voters, it might have appeared otherwise. Some observers even insisted that we had entered a “post-racial” era.

But while that cross-racial and ethnic coalition figured significantly in Mr. Obama’s re-election last week, it has frayed over time — and may in fact have been weaker than we imagined to begin with. For close to the surface lies a political racism that harks back 150 years to the time of Reconstruction, when African-Americans won citizenship rights. Black men also won the right to vote and contested for power where they had previously been enslaved.

How is this so? The “birther” challenge, which galvanized so many Republican voters, expresses a deep unease with black claims to political inclusion and leadership that can be traced as far back as the 1860s. Then, white Southerners (and a fair share of white Northerners) questioned the legitimacy of black suffrage, viciously lampooned the behavior of new black officeholders and mobilized to murder and drive off local black leaders.

A crowd participated in a candlelit vigil, “We Are One Mississippi,” at the University of Mississippi in Oxford on Wednesday. It was in response to a protest on campus after President Obama was re-elected. Credit Bruce Newman/Oxford Eagle, via Associated Press
Much of the paramilitary work was done by the White League, the Ku Klux Klan and other vigilantes, who destroyed interracial Reconstruction governments and helped pave the road to the ferocious repression, disenfranchisement and segregation of the Jim Crow era.

D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film, “The Birth of a Nation,” which played to enthusiastic audiences, including President Woodrow Wilson, gave these sensibilities wide cultural sanction, with its depiction of Reconstruction’s democratic impulses as a violation of white decency and its celebration of the Klan for saving the South and reuniting the nation.

By the early 20th century the message was clear: black people did not belong in American political society and had no business wielding power over white people. This attitude has died hard. It is not, in fact, dead. Despite the achievements of the civil rights movement, African-Americans have seldom been elected to office from white-majority districts; only three, including Mr. Obama, have been elected to the United States Senate since Reconstruction, and they have been from either Illinois or Massachusetts.

The truth is that in the post-Civil War South few whites ever voted for black officeseekers, and the legacy of their refusal remains with us in a variety of forms. The depiction of Mr. Obama as a Kenyan, an  Indonesian, an African tribal chief, a foreign Muslim — in other words, as a man fundamentally ineligible to be our president — is perhaps the most searing. Tellingly, it is a charge never brought against any of his predecessors.

But the coordinated efforts across the country to intimidate and suppress the votes of racial and ethnic minorities are far more consequential. Hostile officials regularly deploy the language of “fraud” and “corruption” to justify their efforts much as their counterparts at the end of the 19th century did to fully disenfranchise black voters.Although our present-day tactics are state-issued IDs, state-mandated harassment of immigrants and voter-roll purges, these are not a far cry from the poll taxes, literacy tests, residency requirements and discretionary power of local registrars that composed the political racism of a century ago. That’s not even counting the hours-long lines many minority voters confronted.

THE repercussions of political racism are ever present, sometimes in subtle rather than explicit guises. The campaigns of both parties showed an obsessive concern with the fate of the “middle class,” an artificially homogenized category mostly coded white, while resolutely refusing to address the deepening morass of poverty, marginality and limited opportunity that disproportionately engulfs African-American and Latino communities.

At the same time, the embrace of “small business” and the retreat from public-sector institutions as a formula for solving our economic and social crises — evident in the policies of both parties — threaten to further erode the prospects and living standards of racial and ethnic minorities, who are overwhelmingly wage earners and most likely to find decent pay and stability as teachers, police officers, firefighters and government employees.

Over the past three decades, the Democrats have surrendered so much intellectual ground to Republican anti-statism that they have little with which to fight back effectively. The result is that Mr. Obama, like many other Democrats, has avoided the initiatives that could really cement his coalition — public works projects, industrial and urban policy, support for homeowners, comprehensive immigration reform, tougher financial regulation, stronger protection for labor unions and national service — and yet is still branded a “socialist” and coddler of minorities. Small wonder that the election returns indicate a decline in overall popular turnout since 2008 and a drop in Mr. Obama’s share of the white vote, especially the vote of white men.

But the returns also suggest intriguing possibilities for which the past may offer us meaningful lessons. There seems little doubt that Mr. Obama’s bailout of the auto industry helped attract support from white working-class voters and other so-called Reagan Democrats across the Midwest and Middle Atlantic, turning the electoral tide in his favor precisely where the corrosions of race could have been very damaging.

The Republicans, on the other hand, failed to make inroads among minority voters, including Asian-Americans, and are facing a formidable generational wall. Young whites helped drive the forces of conservatism and white supremacy during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but now most seem ill at ease with the policies that the Republican Party brandishes: social conservatism, anti-feminism, opposition to same-sex marriage and hostility to racial minorities. The anti-Obama riot at Ole Miss, integrated 50 years ago by James H. Meredith, was followed by a larger, interracial “We Are One Mississippi” candlelight march of protest. Mr. Obama and the Democrats have an opportunity to bridge the racial and cultural divides that have been widening and to begin to reconfigure the country’s political landscape. Although this has always been a difficult task and one fraught with peril, history — from Reconstruction to Populism to the New Deal to the struggle for civil rights — teaches us that it can happen: when different groups meet one another on more level planes, slowly get to know and trust one another, and define objectives that are mutually beneficial and achievable, they learn to think of themselves as part of something larger — and they actually become something larger.

Hard work on the ground — in neighborhoods, schools, religious institutions and workplaces — is foundational. But Mr. Obama, the biracial community organizer, might consider starting his second term by articulating a vision of a multicultural, multiracial and more equitable America with the same insight and power that he once brought to an address on the singular problem of race. If he does that, with words and then with deeds, he can strike a telling blow against the political racism that haunts our country.

Steven Hahn is a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration.”

Revue de recherche en civilisation américaine
3 | 2012 : L’Amérique post-raciale ? / Post-racial America?
The Politics of Race and Class in the Age of Obama
by Myra Mendible

Résumé | Index | Plan | Texte | Bibliographie | Notes | Citation | Auteur

This essay explores the revival and misappropriation of identity politics in the age of Obama. I argue that Obama’s presidency has exposed the fault lines of American society, evoking deep-seated apprehensions about race, immigration, and America’s role in a post-9/11 world. As a result, it has generated a range of discursive strategies intended to both disguise and deploy racialist ideology. In particular, my analysis focuses attention on three developments in the wake of Obama’s election: the emergence of “whiteness” as an endangered identity; the prevalence of “class” as a code word for “race”; and the reconfiguration of “passing” and miscegenation tropes in political discourse. I consider the ways that these rhetorical sleights-of-hand exploit post-racial discourse in order to dismantle decades of progressive civil rights legislation in the United States.

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Entrées d’index

Index by keyword :
identity politics, post-racial, race, Obama, discourse, post-racial, legislation

Post-Racial America: New Myth for a New Age?
“Passing” for “Black”?
Is White the New Black?
Exploiting the “Obama Effect”

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Post-Racial America: New Myth for a New Age?

1 Bridging the partisan divide in Washington and forging a more united, “post-racial” America were defining themes of Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. Yet despite the evocative power of his “post-race” narrative—which, incidentally, complements the nation’s myth of meritocracy—Obama’s election has not produced a more perfect union. In fact, America’s first black president finds himself presiding over a deeply polarized citizenry. Throughout the 2008 campaign season, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and anti-”foreigner” rhetoric fueled angry town hall meetings; aroused suspicions about Obama’s citizenship status; and turned the race for the presidency into a mythic battle between “real” Americans and socialists and terrorists.1 As the next presidential campaign heats up, news of gridlock in  Washington and discontent on Main Street dominates the headlines. An appealing narrative of “post racial” harmony may have swayed the 2008 election Obama’s way, but it is the language of fear and suspicion that exerts influence in its wake and threatens Obama’s chance at a second term.

2 This essay considers the so-called “Obama effect”2 as a discursive shift that revises and misappropriates identity politics. My analysis focuses attention on differentiation processes that disguise racialist ideology by disavowing or inverting a conventional black/white paradigm. In particular, I examine the deployment of three principle selfing/othering strategies in the age of Obama: the resurgence of code words for “race”; the reconfiguration of “passing” tropes in political discourse; and the emergence of “whiteness” as an endangered identity. I hope to show that these rhetorical sleights-of-hand exploit post-racial discourse in order to dismantle decades of progressive civil rights legislation in the United States.

3 Stuart Hall theorizes national identity as a discourse that shapes our collective self-image and encourages us to act in certain ways. These “shared meanings” align individuals with others and with a broader set of desirable qualities. In Hall’s view, discursive strategies are “how a national culture functions as a source of cultural meanings, a focus of identification, and a system of representation” (Modernity 615). While these strategies help us imagine similarities and affiliations, Hall argues that identity is discursively constructed primarily through difference. Rather than being “gradually subsumed” within national identity, ethnic and racial difference entails “the binding and marking of symbolic boundaries, the production of ‘frontier effects’ (“Introduction” 2). This discursive construction of difference continues and even intensifies when the national self feels threatened or vulnerable, as is the case in post 9/11 America.

4 Obama’s election exposed the fault lines of American society, evoking deep-seated apprehensions about race, immigration, and America’s status in a post-9/11 world. Despite his attempts to bypass race as a factor and not alienate his white constituency, Obama’s presidency has been to some degree hijacked by race. It can even be said that his election further obscured institutional racism and galvanized a racist backlash. As race historian David Roediger points out, “Obama does not represent the triumph of an advancing anti-racist movement but rather the necessity, at the highly refracted level of electoral politics, of abandoning old agendas, largely by not mentioning them” (How Race Survived). This suggests that Obama’s election actually facilitated a counter-discourse that obscures or downplays the persistence of inequality and racism and idealizes the current state of race relations in America. In 2009, almost 2 out of 3 white Americans (61.3 percent) surveyed said that blacks have now achieved racial equality; 21.5 percent believe that they will soon achieve it (Bobo 29). Thus “the overwhelming fraction of white Americans sees the post-racial moment as effectively here (83.8 percent)” despite evidence to the contrary (Bobo 29).

5The fact that Americans elected a mixed race president presumably means that we have “moved beyond” race and its discontents. Any mention of systemic inequalities or lingering hostilities can now be easily discounted by pointing to the fact that the son of an American white woman and a Kenyon Muslim was elected president of the United States. Post-race discourse here serves to bolster the claims of capitalist meritocracy: the only barrier to individual wealth and success is a poor work ethic or some other character flaw. As Roediger notes in an interview,

If you accept the idea that racism is a personal failing, his election will show that a lot of people have overcome that personal failing, and I wouldn’t dismiss that. I think it is an important fact about the United States. But it’s not a fact that changes the fact of wholesale inequality or wholesale incarceration of black and brown people. Those won’t change as a result of the election.3

6 One need only consider conservative radio talk-show host and former Secretary of Education for President Reagan, Bill Bennett, who remarked that Obama’s election should mean an end to “excuse-making” by people of color: “Well, I’ll tell you one thing [Obama’s win] means…You don’t take any excuses anymore from anybody who says, ‘The deck is stacked, I can’t do anything, there’s so much in-built this and that.’”4 This is the same Bill Bennett who once told a caller on his radio show that a sure way to reduce crime would be to “abort every Black baby in this country.”5

7 But if race is no longer an “easy” bogeyman in the age of Obama, it is certainly no less productive of difference. In this context, deferring and recoding “race” allows it to do its discursive work. Code words for race first surfaced during the Civil Rights Movement, when America’s racial and ethnic hierarchies faced strong challenges. Christopher Hitchensexplains that, “As the 1960s advanced, [racist language] became less respectable and, with the defection of white Southerners to the Republican Party, more a matter of codes and signals.” After Obama’s election, some of his political opponents adapt self-congratulatory rhetoric about America’s racial progress, even as they revive the use of “code words” to de-legitimize Obama’s presidency. The same fear-mongering tactics apply, but these strategic invocations of difference rarely mention “race” outright.

8 Code words achieve their intended effect by arousing the same kinds of anxieties that “blackness” does in a racist, but without implicating the speaker in racism. Overtly invoking fear or suspicion by mentioning President Obama’s racial difference would offend some voters’ sensibilities. Recoding and deferral allow opponents to differentiate and demonize Obama’s “difference” without directly alluding to race. Instead, symbolic national boundaries are forged and maintained by recoding Obama’s racial difference to signify an indeterminate otherness, a threatening “non-Americanness” that calls into question his legal and cultural right to be president of the United States. Deferring reference to the longstanding duologue of white and black, the discourse of “Americanness” in the age of Obama invokes “patriotic” themes associated with historically Anglo-American myths of cultural belonging. This discourse repeatedly pines for a return to so-called “traditional American values” and for a time when America ruled the world proudly and “without apology.” It invokes an imagined community united by religious (Judeo-Christian) and economic (capitalist/free market) kinship. Differentiating Obama here depends on excluding him from these foundational narratives—portraying him as an outsider who holds no authentic ties to “American” history or values. He is someone who “doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism” (Blackwell).6 Hillary Clinton's chief strategist, Mark Penn, promoted this view during the 2008 campaign: “I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values,” Penn wrote. He thus proposed targeting Obama's “lack of American roots” (qtd. in Dickerson).

9 This charge extends into another set of coded messages that draw on familiar stereotypes of African-American such as the “coon” “Sambo” or “Uncle Tom” to suggest that Obama lacks the dignity or status to represent America on the world stage. In 2009, when President Obama attended the G-20 summit in London, controversy ensued over Obama’s supposed bow before Saudi King Abdullah. A Washington Times editorial called it a “shocking display of fealty to a foreign potentate” and a “servile gesture” that ran contrary to American tradition.7 In 2010, another caricature making the rounds online continues the Obama-as-subservient theme: it depicts the Harvard-educated black president as a shoe shine boy polishing Sarah Palin’s shoes.8 Issues of “Tea Party Comix,” circulated and sold online by its creator, Tom Kalb, featured a series of Obama-as-coon caricatures. Defending himself against the charge of racism, Kalb responded,

The accusation of ‘Hate’ is true, but it is the hate of an IDEOLGY [sic], not a of race of people….. I understand that the ideology has captured 80 or 90% of the race(s) in question, but it is STILL AN IDEOLOGY and NOT a “race” that this comic book attacks.”9

10 Other images culling negative stereotypes of black men go even farther in “coding” Obama’s threat, linking the president to images of the black “gangsta” or thug. One goes so far as to imagine Obama as black rapist; it shows a nude Lady Liberty sitting on the edge of a bed weeping as a smiling Obama says, “Oh stop your whining. You gave all the consent I’ll ever need November 2008.” When asked about her cartoon, conservative blogger Darleen Click denied any racist intent: “This is supposed to be a  post-racial era. Then deal with the fact that the President of the United States is the head of a gang that just raped our American principles.”10

11 Recoding race often involves eliciting associations that are deeply rooted in long-standing economic inequalities in the US, which as Lawrence Bobo contends, make “blackness synonymous with the very bottom of the class structure” (17). Bobo rightly points out that poverty rates “do not fully capture the cumulative and multidimensional nature of black economic disadvantage” (19). This includes high rates of unemployment and incarceration, family break-up, and substandard schools and housing. Yet “post race” discourse as deployed for political gain endorses “color blind” policies that rely on what Bobo calls “laissez faire” racism (15). A continuing and widening wealth gap between whites and blacks is attributed not to enduring structural constraints or conditions but to “lack of motivation and will-power” (25). This generates wide support for conservative social policies that favor “color blind” criteria and contributes to the resentment many whites feel “toward the demands or grievances voiced by African Americans and the expectation of governmental redress” (28).

12 Attributing black poverty or unemployment rates to blacks’ laziness, criminality, or willingness to “scam” the system, this tactic distinguishes “hard working Americans” (read: whites) from those “others” who lack the traditional “Protestant work ethic” that is central to WASP culture in America. Ronald Reagan famously chided “welfare queens” during his presidency, and Hillary Clinton revived these associations when she ran against Obama: “I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on,” she told a USA Today reporter. Clinton then cited Sen. Obama's weak “support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans.”11

13During the 2012 presidential campaign, Newt Gingrich echoed his 1994 Contract with America, which targeted federal food stamp entitlement programs for elimination. At a Fox News-Wall Street Journal sponsored debate in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, he referred to President Obama as “the best food stamp president in history,” culling associations between the black president and entitlement programs. Relying on racist stereotypes that attribute blacks’ economic status to laziness or lack of willpower, Gingrich asserted the difference between “them” (Obama and the 95% of blacks who supported him in the first election) and “us” (a majority white Republican audience, and by extension, “real” i.e. “hard working” Americans): “We believe in work. We believe people should learn to work and that we’re opposed to dependency.”12 Despite the fact that most recipients of federal food aid are children, elderly, and severely disabled persons and that only 22% of all food stamp recipients are black, Gingrich was able to exploit assumptions and familiar stereotypes for effect—eliciting a standing ovation in the process.

“Passing” for “Black”?

14 Ironically, Obama is in this way suspected of a kind of “passing” that does not overtly involve his race: the president of the United States is seen as “passing” as an American Christian capitalist. “Passing” most commonly refers to the practice of concealing of one’s racial identity. In the post-Civil American South, “passing” as white was the only way that a light skinned African-American man or woman could gain access to the privileges, citizenship, and freedoms granted whites. But in the more complicated, dynamic identity politics of America today, “Americanness” is less bound to “whiteness” exclusively than to its affiliations and associations. The slippery semantics at play in these gestures first surfaced in the charge made by black Republican Alan Keyes when he ran against Obama in the Illinois Senate race years earlier; in this context it was not that Obama was “too black” (i.e. “African”). Keyes denounced Obama for not being the descendant of slaves and therefore not “’truly’ black.”

15 These semantic switches often result in absurd leaps in logic and contradictory assertions. More recently, National Review’s Victor Davis Hanson contrasted Herman Cain’s “authentic” blackness with President Obama’s:

Herman Cain is authentically African-American and of an age to remember the Jim Crow South; Obama, the son of an elite Kenyan and a white graduate student, came of age as a Hawaiian prep-schooler, whose civil-rights credentials are academic.13

16 In this case, Obama’s stellar academic background and success, qualities that would usually link him to one of America’s myth of meritocracy, are used to disassociate him from the American self. The assumption underlying this skewed logic is that “real” blacks in America are lower class and uneducated.

17  These rhetorical moves position Obama at the “frontiers” of a legitimated or “authentic” identity – neither black nor white, neither European nor truly American. This dread of Obama’s undifferentiated Otherness was expressed by one man in Mobile, Alabama who told a New York Times reporter, “[Obama’s] neither-nor. He's other. It's in the Bible. Come as one. Don't create other breeds.”14 But it is at its most ludicrous in Dinesh D’Souza’s Forbes article, “How Obama Thinks.” At the outset, D’Souza aligns Obama with a Third World “anti-colonialist” agenda that is meant to signal allegiance to an “anti-American” politics. But D’Souza does not simply suggest an ideological difference; D’Souza ascribes to Obama an almost supernatural Otherness. First D’Souza situates Obama within the discourse of “foreignness” by noting (incorrectly) that he spent “his formative years… off the American mainland, in Hawaii, Indonesia, and Pakistan, with multiple subsequent journeys to Africa” (later acknowledging that Obama never lived in Pakistan). Despite the fact that Obama was raised by his white mother and grandparents, D’Souza sees in Obama the reincarnation of his father, “a Luo tribesman…. a philandering, inebriated African socialist.” It is this threatening, otherworldly influence that D’Souza claims is “now setting the nation's agenda.” D’Souza writes (presumably with a straight face), that through his father

Obama learned to see America as a force for global domination and destruction. He came to view America's military as an instrument of neocolonial occupation. He adopted his father's position that capitalism and free markets are code words for economic plunder. Obama grew to perceive the rich as an oppressive class, a kind of neocolonial power within America.

18 D’Souza ends with an ominous question about Obama’s “dream” for America: “What is his dream? Is it the American dream? Is it Martin Luther King's dream? Or something else?” Whatever this ambiguously foreign President’s “dream,” D’Souza warns his readers, it is “certainly not the American dream as conceived by the founders.” Obama’s racial difference here dissolves into a threatening hybridity: disconnected from America’s historical narrative of racial progress (“Martin Luther King's dream of a color-blind society”) as well as from its justificatory myth of expansionism, Obama is alienated—cut off from any link to American history or culture. He is an anti-capitalist, anti-American foreign other who cannot even claim an “authenticated” American blackness. As Newt Gingrich mused in response to what he referred to as D’Souza’s “stunning insight” about Barack Obama: “What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?” (qtd. in Costa)

19 Criticism of the President often involves this amorphous “Othering” process: references to Obama’s “questionable” birth certificate raise doubts about whether he was “really” born in America; allusions to his “Kenyon father” the “Luo tribesman” arouse suspicions about Obama’s “Africanness”; use of the word “socialist” in conjunction with any policy Obama proposes, regardless of how “centrist” or moderate or capitalist, spooks middle-class Americans into opposing what might benefit them economically; and opportune uttering of his middle name, Hussein, works to denote Muslim or Middle Eastern affiliations with all that entails in post-9/11 America. These sorts of subtle racial cues have an impact on political elections: research published by Valentino, Hutchings, and White in American Political Science Review, for example, shows that subtle racial cues in campaign communications activates racial attitudes that affect political decision-making. Thus distortion and misinformation persist, circulated via popular conservative media outlets, talk radio, internet blogs, and even prominent political leaders. Not surprisingly, a Harris poll conducted in March of 2010 shows that 67% of Republicans believe Obama is a socialist, another 57% that he is a Muslim, and 45% that he was not born in the United States and is therefore ineligible for the presidency.15

20 This need to position Obama as somehow “outside” the parameters of what is legitimately “American” was on display throughout the 2008 presidential campaign, though during that contest Senator John McCain corrected an audience member who referred to Obama as a Muslim. Yet during the 2012 campaign stop in Florida, GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum smiled and nodded as a woman in the audience told him, “I never refer to Obama as President Obama because legally he is not [president]…. He is an avowed Muslim and my question is, why isn’t something being done to get him out of government? He has no legal right to be calling himself president.”16 When questioned about his silence in the face of this factually inaccurate and offensive claim, Santorum responded, “I don’t feel it’s my obligation every time someone says something I don’t agree with to contradict them.” Further fueling fears of Obama’s otherness, Santorum told audiences at Columbus, Ohio campaign stop: Obama's agenda is “not about you. It's not about your quality of life. It's not about your jobs. It's about some phony ideal. Some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology.”17

21Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961 and did not even visit Kenya until 1987, but this has not stopped some prominent conservatives from attributing his “difference” to his Kenyon ancestry. James Mann coined the phrase the “Kenya paranoia” in reference to this phenomenon. But Mann is “not talking here about simply the ideas of Republicans, the right wing or the political fringes. Rather, the Kenya paranoia has been showing up in the politest society, among journalists and even high-ranking diplomats.” Mann argues that this “paranoia” about Obama’s “difference” is not even restricted to Americans: a British television reporter wanted to interview Mann about Obama’s views of the world because, “’He has different roots than all other presidents,’ the reporter said. ‘He doesn’t have ties to Europe.’” Mann points to the irony of this assumption that Obama is not “European” enough—despite a white mother with British ancestry. Similarly, former Arkansas governor and twice GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee attributes Obama’s “difference” to his “having grown up in Kenya” (an untruth that forced his political action committee spokesman, Hogan Gidley, to explain that “the governor… wasn't talking about the president's place of birth -- the governor believes the president was born in Hawaii”). We should note the use of the word “believes” rather than “knows,” as if Obama’s citizenship was simply a matter of belief.18

22 In lieu of a discourse that “fixes” Obama’s otherness within a definable, familiar black/white framework, post-race discourse deployed during the presidential campaigns turns our attention from a history of US racial struggle that endures in the present. As Bobo points out, much post-racial rhetoric proclaims the irrelevance of the traditional black-white divide in an age when Americans are embracing hybridity and mixed ethnoracial identities (14). There has certainly been much ado about the changing demographics of the US, sometimes accompanied by ominous predictions about the “disappearing” white race. But as Bobo cautions, “we should be mindful that the level of ‘discussion’ and contention around mixture is far out of proportion to the extent to which most Americans actually designate and see themselves in these terms” (15). But with the black/white racial divide (rhetorically) situated in America’s past, Obama’s opponents can recode a racial binary into an ideologically framed opposition between “us” (“real” Americans of all colors) and “him” (an amalgam of all that is alien, potentially dangerous, and foreign). This discourse reframes historical events and struggles, drawing from terms that had served to champion civil rights legislation and deploying them to protect and privilege “whiteness.”19

Is White the New Black?

23 Interestingly, while “blackness” is deflected and deferred, “whiteness” is that which can now be spoken. Of particular interest is how “identity politics,” once primarily a concern of women of color, postcolonial critics, and other oppositional groups, has become a mainstream pastime in the age of Obama. In an election cycle that saw unprecedented participation by women, Latinos, and African Americans both as voters and candidates—”race” (closely aligned with “gender”) was bound to be a major topic of conversation. But “race” in mainstream American culture is usually coded as a referent for “non-white” people, a way of speaking about “them” (African Americans and other ethnic minorities). Since “whiteness” acts as the default setting, it typically remains unspoken and unacknowledged by whites themselves. As the philosopher Lewis Gordon puts it, to be non-white is to be racialized, while “To be raceless is to be 'pushed up toward whiteness’” (122). It is the “invisible universal,” the “norm” that need not be spoken. Ironically, as “blackness” is sidelined in the interest of unity, it is “whiteness” that takes center stage. “White” identity was fretted over, pointed to, and talked about throughout the campaigns. Most significantly, through a rhetorical sleight-of-hand, a longstanding racial hierarchy was inverted (if only symbolically): “whiteness” emerged in public discourse as a political liability and “blackness” as a privileged site. Especially ironic is that even as Obama’s election is used by pundits and politicians alike as evidence of Americans’ post-race colorblindness, “whiteness” crops up as an endangered identity.

24 During the campaigns, such transcoding was in evidence on the Democratic side when Geraldine Ferraro attributed Obama’s success to his being black, noting that “if Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position.”20 In this reversal of white privilege, Hillary Clinton was imagined as the “victim” of black male popularity. Similarly, John Edwards often played the underdog during the campaign, making self-deprecating remarks about being a “white” male. The news media pursued the white-as-disadvantage storyline, one news anchor even asking Edwards, “What is a white male to do running against these historic candidacies?” (Jaffe). There were also blatant, repeated appeals to “white” women by both Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton, while political pundits tracked, scrutinized, and obsessed over the “white working class voter.” Later, the Republican bid for Hillary's supporters focused on “white women” who were expected to switch their vote to Palin not because of any ideological affiliation but merely on the basis of mutual “white femaleness.”

25 This pattern continues in post-Obama political culture to the point of absurdity, as when Fox TV commentator Glenn Beck accused the half-white Obama of harboring a “deep-seated hatred of white people.”21 In the presumably “post-race” age of Obama, white U.S.-born citizens are said to be an “oppressed majority” (in Rush Limbaugh's words). This discourse has fueled paranoia and inspired the formation of various anti-immigrant and white supremacist groups. Since Obama’s election, membership in anti-immigrant groups has “risen from around 40 in 2005 to over 250 today” (Arana). The Southern Poverty Law Center notes “a dramatic resurgence in the Patriot movement and its paramilitary wing, the militias…. an astonishing 363 new Patriot groups appeared in 2009…a 244% jump” (Potok). The Center’s “Intelligence Report” in spring of 2010 warns of increasing violence:

Since the installation of Barack Obama, right-wing extremists have murdered six law enforcement officers. Racist skinheads and others have been arrested in alleged plots to assassinate the nation’s first black president. One man from Brockton, Mass. — who told police he had learned on white supremacist websites that a genocide was under way against whites — is charged with murdering two black people and planning to kill as many Jews as possible on the day after Obama’s inauguration. Most recently, a rash of individuals with antigovernment, survivalist or racist views have been arrested in a series of bomb cases. (Potok)

26 Even the Tea Party Movement, whose leaders claim is the result of grass-roots, populist anger by both blacks and whites, often resorts to this white-as-disadvantaged rhetoric. A racial subtext often frames speeches at Tea Party events. Tom Tancredo, a former Republican Representative, railed during a Tea Party Convention that “People who could not even spell the word ‘vote’ or say it in English put a committed socialist in the White House,” echoing the kind of discourse that justified literacy tests meant to suppress the black votes in the US under Jim Crow. He went on to blame Obama’s election on “the cult of multiculturalism.”22 This “anti-government” movement, which gained momentum only after Obama’s election, is an increasingly visible and vocal presence in US politics.

27 The appeal to shared “whiteness” is a means of social control as old as the idea of “whiteness” itself. It works to subvert economic and social alliances that could pose a challenge to the status quo. Direct appeals to the “white working class” foster divisions and even antagonisms between poor whites and other oppressed or disenfranchised groups. As historian Edmund Morgan shows, in 1600s British North America, indentured Europeans and enslaved Africans “initially saw each other as sharing the same predicament. It was common, for example, for servants and slaves to run away together, steal hogs together, get drunk together….White, black and native workers, bonded and free, cooperated to counter the harsh class oppression of the plantation elite” (327). Chip Smith cites the wealth of court records that “testify to the many instances of cooperation and solidarity among servants” (17). He argues that the threat of uprisings posed by a united labor class led to the privileging of “white” laborers over Africans: “[O]nce this system of white racial oppression took hold in the South—once the white race came into existence--Southern white workers never again rose up against the plantation system. White people’s anger… targeted the slaves as the cause of their misery rather than the slave system and its white ruling class (21).

Exploiting the “Obama Effect”

28 During his presidential campaign, Obama did his best to avoid the “elephant in the room”: the enduring inequalities and divisions between “white” America and its others. He rarely addressed racial inequality, and with the exception of a major speech devoted to the issue of race, focused scant attention on issues of concern to African American constituents in particular. Despite unemployment rates among African Americans almost double that of whites and an increasing wealth divide between whites and blacks during the recession, Obama has also been muted in his responses to these troublesome trends as President.23 The median wealth of white households is now about 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic ones, the largest wealth gap since the government began publishing this data in the 1970s and about twice the ratios that had prevailed in the two decades prior to 2009.24 Obama’s tacit “post-race” stance, which in this case means ignoring the racial implications of economic recession, has cost him the support of some African American leaders. But it helps him to skirt the divisive issue of race by appearing to “transcend” it as President.

29 Conservative leaders have filled in the gaps left by Obama’s silence. Obama’s reticence may be intended to deflect the impression that he “favors” black or minority constituents, but it has served as tacit endorsement for presumably “color-blind” policies. This post-race political discourse bolsters calls for the elimination of race-based affirmative action programs in the US, programs that have served the interests of working class and minority populations as well as white women. While conservatives have long advocated abolishing racial quotas and other policies enacted after the Civil Rights movement, Obama’s election has been used as evidence that these are no longer needed, despite the fact that white females account for a majority of affirmative action’s beneficiaries since the policies were implemented in the early 1970s (Hartmann). For example, the conservative think tank, “Center for Equal  Opportunity” (CEO) has an agenda that seems contrary to the notion identified with “equal opportunity,” a term associated with policies aimed at ending discrimination against blacks and other minorities. One of CEO’s stated missions is to eliminate affirmative action admissions policies at universities across the nation, policies instituted to increase minority student access to higher education. Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, claims that his group is “not against diversity; we are against discrimination.” But discrimination in Clegg’s “color blind” approach refers to discrimination against whites. CEO recently targeted a number of universities that consider diversity one factor among others in their admissions process. Most recently, the University of Wisconsin at Madison was the subject of a scathing CEO report alleging preferential admissions of blacks and “severe” racial discrimination. The fact that blacks made up only 2.6 percent of the student body admitted to UW-Madison in 2008 while 85.5 percent of incoming students were white somehow suggests that whites are a disadvantaged group.25

30 As Smith, King, and Klinkner have argued, Obama’s election seemed to mark the beginning of an era “after which racial inequalities and conflicts would no longer be central to national life” (121). Yet the ongoing debate between “color-blind” and “race-conscious” policies and programs suggests that we have yet to resolve the issue of how to address race-based inequalities. The prospect of forming coalitions that can reach across party lines and forge effective compromises seems bleak in the current political landscape:

Today, partisan division and racial alliance divisions are almost coextensive: the Republicans regularly endorse color-blind policies, while Democrats support race-conscious ones. Even though the issues that define our current racial era seem more amenable to reasonable compromises…this structural reinforcement of racial/partisan positions has contributed to a decisively polarized politics in which resolving racial issues is a mammoth task. (122)

31 The promise implicit in Obama’s successful 2008 candidacy makes the divisiveness and hostility that plagues his presidency especially troubling. Given America’s racial history, there is little doubt that his election suggests that a more fluid, negotiable American identity is now possible, and that the walls that kept African American men and women out of the higher echelons of political power are, if not obliterated, at least crumbling. There is also reason to celebrate the effect that this election may have on black youth, who may see reflected in Barack Obama’s success, a model for their own aspirations. The “hope” and “change” message that Obama represents still resonates among many, and it may eventually foster a more honest and nuanced discussion about race. But the case for a “post-race” America in the age of Obama still seems less grounded in a genuinely “color-blind” politics than in the art of deflection and disavowal. As a result, tangible domestic policy changes implemented as a result of the Civil Rights Movement could be repealed as a result. In the end, much will depend on the extent to which Americans allow racism to masquerade as progress.

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Costa, Robert. “Gingrich: Obama’s ‘Kenyan, anti-colonial’ worldview.” National Review Online. September 11, 2010. Web. 10 Sept. 2011.

Derrida, Jacques. 1981. Positions. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)

Dickerson, John. “Exceptionally Articulate: Obama’s Eloquence Fails to Quiet Charges that he Does Not  Believe in God or America.” Slate Magazine. Feb. 7, 2011. Web. 20 Sept. 2011.

D’Souza, Dinesh. “How Obama Thinks.” Sept.27, 2010. Forbes Magazine,10 Sept. 2011.

Elliott, Philip. “Mike Huckabee Caught Claiming Obama Grew up in Kenya.” Associated Press March 2, 2011. Web. 10 Sept. 2011. <>

Hall, Stuart. “Introduction: Who Needs Identity?” Questions of Cultural Identity. Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay, eds. London: Sage, 1996:, pp.3-17

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Harris, Heather, and Kimberly Moffitt, Catherine Squires, (ed.). 2010.  The Obama Effect: Multidisciplinary Renderings of the 2008 Campaign. (Albany: State University of New York Press)

Hartmann, Heidi. “Who Has Benefited from Affirmative Action in Employment?” Ed. G. E. Curry. The Affirmative Action Debate. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books, 1996: 77-96. Print.

Hitchens, Christopher. “From the N-Word to Code Words: The evolution of the race card in American politics.” Slate Magazine. Sept. 20, 2010. Web. 15 July 2011.

Klein, Aaron, and Brenda Elliott. 2010. The Manchurian President: Barack Obama’s Ties to Communists, Socialists, and Other Anti-American Extremists. (New York: World Net Daily Books)

Mann, James. “It's Not Just D'Souza: British People Think Obama Is a Kenyan Anti-Colonialist,Too.” The New Republic. Sept. 28, 2010. Web. 15 Sept. 2011.

Marsden, Lee. “Religion, Identity, and American Power in the Age of Obama.” International Politics 48.2/3 (2011): 326–343.
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Martin, Courtney E. “The Power of the ‘Post-Racial’ Narrative.” The American Prospect. Feb. 2, 2010. Web.

Mendible, Myra. (ed.). 2010. Race 2008: Critical Reflections on an Historic Campaign. (Boca Raton, FL: BrownWalker Press)

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1  In March of 2010, Republican National Committee fundraising plans harnessed these suspicions of Obama, calling for an aggressive campaign capitalizing on “fear” of President Obama and socialism. Interestingly, a copy of the presentation was left in a hotel hosting the $2,500-a-head Republican fundraising retreat. See

2  The election of an African American as president has been credited or blamed for a variety of seismic changes in America’s sociopolitical landscape, giving rise to the term “Obama Effect.” The term has been used disparagingly (as in the Citizens United film, Hype: The Obama Effect) or approvingly (as in Ray Friedman’s Vanderbilt University study suggesting that Obama’s election may help reduce the test achievement gap between Blacks and Whites). See Harris, Moffitt, and Squires for interdisciplinary analyses of the “Obama effect.”

3   Roediger, David. “Obama’s Success Not a Sign that U.S. has Overcome Race Issue, Historian Says.” Illinois News Bureau, Office of Public Affairs, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne. 11 Sept. 2008.

4   see

5  September 28, 2005 broadcast of Salem Radio Network's Bill Bennett's Morning in America. [Transcript]

6  For examples of “conspiracy theories” aligned with this line of thinking, see Blackwell and Klukowski (2010); Klein and Elliott (2010).

7  “Barack Takes a Bow.”  7 April 2009. Web. 2 February 2012.

8  For a look at several “coon” images, their racist roots, and their revival during Obama’s presidency, see


10  For a discussion of this criminalizing narrative and its historical links to racism, see Kay Whitlock’s article, “Criminalizing President Obama.” This essay includes links to various images and their historical correlates.

11  “Clinton Makes Case for Wide Appeal.” USA Today.  8 May 2008. Web. January 4, 2012.

12  See “Gingrich Swipes at Food Stamps.”

13  “Cain Lost in the Labyrinth: Cain’s authenticity versus Obama’s metrosexual cool.” National Review Online. November 9, 2011. Web. 2 February 2012.

14  Stephen Ducat. “Why They Hate Obama.”  26 October 2008. Web. 8 January 2012.


16  See

17  See Samuel Jacobs, “Santorum Says Obama Theology not Based on Bible.” 12 February 2012. Web. February 25, 2012.


19  There are still, of course, blatantly racist images and claims circulating widely even in this presumably more “enlightened” post-Obama era. As Lawrence Bobo puts it, “At the same time that a nation celebrates the historic election of an African American president, the cultural production of demeaning antiblack images—post-cards featuring watermelons on the White House lawn prior to the annual Easter egg roll, Obama featured in loincloth and with a bone through his nose in ads denouncing the health care bill, a cartoon showing police officers shooting an out-of-control chimpanzee under the heading ‘They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill’—are ugly reminders of some of the more overtly racialized reactions to the ascendancy of an African American to the presidency of the United States” (32).

20  See Reuters story online:

21  Fox and Friends, July 28, 2009.

22  See Kevin Hechtkopf, “Tom Tancredo Tea Party Speech Slams ‘Cult of Multiculturalism.’”

CBS News. Feb. 5, 2010. Web.

23  According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report issued in August of 2011, the unemployment rate for whites was 8.1% compared to 15.9% for blacks and 11.3% for Hispanics. Equally significant is the increasing wealth gap: according to the Pew research, inflation-adjusted median wealth fell by 66% among Hispanic households and 53% among black households from 2005 through 2009, compared with 16% in white households.

24  See complete Pew Research Report at

25  See Emily Wood, “Conservative Think Tank Undermines Diversity Efforts at UW-Madison.” Sept. 16, 2011. Web.

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Myra Mendible, « The Politics of Race and Class in the Age of Obama », Revue de recherche en civilisation américaine [En ligne], 3 | 2012, mis en ligne le 30 janvier 2012, consulté le 23 mai 2015. URL :

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Myra Mendible
Professor, American Media and Culture Studies, Florida Gulf Coast University


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Droits d’auteur…/president-obama-back…


(Originally posted on August 10, 2009):

Monday, August 10, 2009

President Obama Backtracks on His Statement About Cambridge Police in the Henry Louis Gates Case


This is nothing but cowardly doubletalk on Obama's part and a blatantly obvious capitulation to the racism of millions of white Americans throughout the country who have done nothing but openly malign and attack Gates, Obama, and black people generally in this situation and propped up the racist white police officer as a man who was "simply doing his job." The power of the doctrine of white supremacy AS ALWAYS strikes again. Nothing surprising there...

As for the President however this episode and his absurd and utterly false suggestion/assertion that both Gates and the police were "equally overreacting" I have nothing but contempt. It's nothing but a BIG LIE meant to try to assuage racist white voters and their political representatives (e.g. the racist and sexist rightwing in particular and the Republican Party in general). It demonstrates incredible weakness and weakminded sophistry on Obama's part and indicates once again that the white backlash fallout of the fact that Obama only received 43% of the white vote in the presidential election (as opposed to the 55% of the white vote that McCain received!) is continuing to have a fatal impact on Obama's general political agenda and his opportunist flipflopping stances on a number of important political and economic issues facing the black community and the rest of the nation as well.

It takes genuine courage and independence to be a real leader and this kind of weakassed running scared performance on Obama's part ain't it! Not by a long shot. To say that I am "bitterly disappointed" in the President on his pathetic response to the Gates case is seriously understating by a very large margin. I AM THOROUGHLY DISGUSTED...

Obama Says He Regrets His Language on Gates Arrest

President Obama made a surprise appearance at the daily White House briefing on Friday shortly after Sgt. James Crowley appeared at a news conference in Cambridge, Mass.

July 24, 2009
New York Times


WASHINGTON — President Obama said Friday that he “could have calibrated” his words more carefully in the controversy over the arrest of a black Harvard professor by a white police officer, but added that there had been an “overreaction” by both sides in a case that touched off an intense discussion about race in America.

“To the extent that my choice of words didn’t illuminate, but rather contributed to more media frenzy, I think, that was unfortunate,” Mr. Obama said, making an unusual unannounced visit to the White House briefing room in an effort to ease the controversy.

The president, who on Wednesday said that the police in Cambridge, Mass., “acted stupidly” in the arrest of Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr., a prominent Harvard scholar of African-American history, sought to clear up the matter. He said he hoped the case could become “a teachable moment” to be used to improve relations between minorities and police officers.

The president said that he conveyed his sentiment to Sgt. James Crowley in a telephone call on Friday afternoon. The call, which lasted about five minutes, came after police officials in Massachusetts and beyond accused Mr. Obama of maligning the character of Sergeant Crowley and the entire Cambridge police force.

“I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up, I wanted to make clear that in my choice of words, I think, I unfortunately, I think, gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sergeant Crowley specifically,” Mr. Obama told reporters. “I could have calibrated those words differently, and I told this to Sergeant Crowley.”

Mr. Obama did not specifically use the word “apology,” but aides said that was the sentiment conveyed during his call with the officer. Mr. Obama, the nation’s first black president, has walked a careful line in his writings and in his political career when addressing race. Since taking office six months ago, he has delivered only a handful of speeches devoted specifically to race.

But an unscripted remark at a news conference on Wednesday evening — particularly the two words “acting stupidly” — touched off a widespread discussion about race that overshadowed the promotion of the president’s health care plan and other agenda items.

“I continue to believe, based on what I have heard, that there was an overreaction in pulling Professor Gates out of his home to the station,” Mr. Obama added. “I also continue to believe, based on what I heard that Professor Gates probably overreacted as well. My sense is you’ve got two good people in a circumstance in which neither of them were able to resolve the incident in the way that it should have been resolved and the way they would have liked it to be resolved.”

Professor Gates was arrested on July 16, when the police were called to his Cambridge home after a report of a burglary in progress. The professor said he told the police that he lived in the house and that he was jimmying open a damaged front door. Still, the police report said he was arrested for “loud and tumultuous behavior in a public space.”

The disorderly conduct charges against Professor Gates were later dropped, and the city of Cambridge, its police department, the Middlesex County district attorney’s office and Professor Gates issued a joint statement calling the incident “regrettable and unfortunate.”

The brief and surprise appearance by Mr. Obama before reporters on Friday afternoon was an attempt by the White House to move beyond the controversy that has dominated the last two days.

Only hours earlier, Robert Gibbs, the press secretary, said the president had made his final remarks about the issue. But advisers said the mounting criticism from police groups and others persuaded the president to address the matter in an attempt to move on.

Mr. Obama, carefully measuring his words to avoid further criticism from either side, said, “Even when you’ve got a police officer who has a fine track record on racial sensitivity, interactions between police officers and the African-American community can sometimes be fraught with misunderstanding.”

One hour after calling Sergeant Crowley, Mr. Obama reached Professor Gates by telephone. An administration official said the call was "a positive discussion," and that it ended with an invitation for the professor and the police officer to meet at the White House — to have a beer, as the president said in his remarks to reporters. There was no immediate word on whether Professor Gates accepted the invitation.

Trying to lighten the moment in the press room, Mr. Obama said of his conversation with Sergeant Crowley: “He also did say he wanted to find out if there was a way of getting the press off his lawn. I informed him that I can’t get the press off my lawn. He pointed out that my lawn is bigger than his lawn.”

And though he conceded that he should have approached the issue somewhat differently on Wednesday night, Mr. Obama said he disagreed that he should not have stepped into it at all.

“The fact that this has become such a big issue I think is indicative of the fact that, you know, race is still a troubling aspect of our society,” Mr. Obama said. “Whether I were black or white, I think that me commenting on this — and hopefully contributing to constructive, as opposed to negative, understandings about the issue — is part of my portfolio.”

The president’s impromptu news conference defused the bold statements by leaders of the Cambridge and Massachusetts police officer unions made two hours earlier in seeking apologies from Mr. Obama and Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts for linking racial profiling to the arrest.

At a news conference in a Cambridge hotel Friday morning, Sergeant Crowley stood flanked by other officers. While he did not speak, a day after offering two long interviews to Boston news organizations, his union representatives spoke for him, with forceful words for the president.

Sgt. Dennis O’Connor, the president of the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association, said he was offended by President Obama’s assertion that the police department had acted “stupidly,” and by his connecting those actions to a history of racial profiling in America.

“The facts of this case suggest that the president used the right adjective, but directed it to the wrong party,” Sergeant O’Connor said, suggesting that Professor Gates had introduced racial concerns. “His remarks were obviously misdirected, but made worse yet by a suggestion that somehow this case should remind us of a history of racial abuse by law enforcement.”

Governor Patrick had weighed in Tuesday when the charges of disorderly conduct against Professor Gates were dropped, calling the incident “troubling,” and saying that it was “every black man’s nightmare.”

Sergeant O’Connor said, in prepared remarks, that the Cambridge police officers “deeply resent the implication and reject any suggestion that in this case or in any other case, they allow race to direct their activities.”

And to President Obama and Governor Patrick, he said, “We hope they will reflect on their past comments and apologize to the men and women of the Cambridge police department.” Steve Killian, the president of the Cambridge Police Patrol Officers Association, who described himself as a third-generation Cambridge police officer, said even more bluntly, “I think the President should make an apology to all law personnel throughout the entire country.”

He started his statement by saying, “Cambridge police are not stupid.”

Since the arrest occurred on the front porch of Professor Gates’s home in Cambridge last Thursday afternoon, both the sergeant and the professor have offered divergent accounts, each accusing the other of belligerent and strange behavior.

At heart, the dispute between Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley centers on two things: which one treated the other rudely and whether they properly identified themselves. Professor Gates, 58, says the sergeant repeatedly refused to reveal his name or badge number; Sergeant Crowley, 42, says the professor initially refused to provide identification, then produced only his Harvard ID card, which included no address, to prove he lived in the house.

Earlier in the week, Professor Gates requested a personal apology from Sergeant Crowley. But on Thursday, the sergeant said he would not offer one.

President Obama fueled the story — and the polarizing national debate about race and law enforcement in America — on Wednesday night by commenting on the arrest at the end of a national news conference that was primarily about health care reform.

Sergeant O’Connor said at Friday’s news conference that the president went too far. When a person says up front they do not know the facts, as President Obama and Governor Patrick both said in their separate comments, Sergeant O’Connor said, “one would expect the next statement to be, ‘So I cannot comment.’ ”

Mr. McDonald, his group’s lawyer, said the president’s conclusion about the case “was dead wrong.”

“If he knew all the facts,” Mr. McDonald said, “he would have concluded that had Professor Gates simply cooperated with the investigation that Sergeant Crowley was undertaking, Sergeant Crowley could have cleared the matter.”

He added: “In our view there was nothing stupid about what happened. What happened to produce a different outcome was directly under the control of Professor Gates. That’s something the president didn’t fully appreciate.”

Jeff Zeleny reported from Washington and Liz Robbins from New York. Abby Goodnough contributed reporting from Boston. Ariana Green from Cambridge, Mass., and and Helene Cooper from Washington.
Obama Shifts Tone on Gates After Mulling Debate

July 24, 2009
New York Times


WASHINGTON — President Obama tried Friday to defuse a volatile national debate over the arrest of a black Harvard University professor as he acknowledged that his own comments had inflamed tensions and insisted he had not meant to malign the arresting officer.

Mr. Obama placed calls to both the professor, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and the man who arrested him, Sgt. James Crowley, two days after saying the police had “acted stupidly” last week in hauling Professor Gates from his home in handcuffs. Mr. Obama said he still considered the arrest “an overreaction,” but added that “Professor Gates probably overreacted as well.”

“I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up,” the president said in an appearance in the White House briefing room. “I want to make clear that in my choice of words, I think I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sergeant Crowley specifically, and I could have calibrated those words differently.”

Mr. Obama’s unusual personal intervention and public statement came just four hours after the White House said he had no more to say on the matter. But after talking with Michelle Obama and some of his closest friends amid unrelenting publicity, his advisers said, the president reversed course in hopes of quashing a dispute that had set off strong reactions and made it harder for the White House to focus attention on his efforts to pass health care legislation.

The Gates case has become the first significant racial controversy Mr. Obama has confronted since being sworn in as the nation’s first African-American president. The improvisational handling of it underscored the delicate challenges for a leader who has tried to govern by crossing old lines and emphasizing commonalities over differences.

Advisers said both his sharp statement, which was made at Wednesday night’s news conference, and his toned-down remarks on Friday reflected strains of his experiences. He was personally outraged by the arrest and wanted to speak bluntly about it, aides said. And they said he was distressed that his words proved polarizing and contrary to his instincts for conciliation.

Whether he succeeded in tamping down the emotions of the case remained to be seen. In their telephone conversation, Mr. Obama said, Sergeant Crowley suggested that he and Professor Gates come to the White House to share a beer with the president. Mr. Obama then conveyed that idea in his phone call with Professor Gates.

Professor Gates said in an e-mail message afterward that he was “pleased to accept his invitation” to come to the White House and meet Sergeant Crowley. “After all, I first made the offer to meet with Sgt. Crowley myself, last Monday,” he wrote. “I told the president that my entire career as an educator has been devoted to racial healing and improved race relations in this country. I am determined that this be a teaching moment.”

Sergeant Crowley made no public comments after his conversation with the president. He has denied doing anything wrong and has declined to apologize to Professor Gates.

The episode stemmed from a misunderstanding when Professor Gates returned to his Cambridge home on July 16 and found his door stuck. A woman reported seeing someone trying to break into the house and the police responded. Although the arresting police officer became aware that Professor Gates was in his own home, the police said he was belligerent and arrested him for disorderly conduct. The charge was later dropped.

Mr. Obama defended his decision to weigh in. “The fact that this has become such a big issue I think is indicative of the fact that, you know, race is still a troubling aspect of our society,” he said. “Whether I were black or white,” he said, commenting “is part of my portfolio.”

Mr. Obama first discussed with aides how to address the arrest during a meeting before his Wednesday news conference. Aides said Mr. Obama, a Harvard-trained lawyer, zeroed in on the fact that the arrest came after police confirmed that Professor Gates was in his own home.

But his use of the word “stupidly” at the news conference that evening generated angry responses from Cambridge police, and some of his aides privately rued the word choice. Mr. Obama, who said he was surprised at the response, discussed the issue over dinner with friends at his home in Chicago on Thursday during a quick trip there for a fund-raiser, according to people close to the family. On Friday morning, they said, he also talked it through with Mrs. Obama.

By then, the controversy had dominated White House staff meetings. Robert Gibbs, the press secretary, had told reporters at 10 a.m. that Mr. Obama had nothing more to say. Some advisers had concluded the furor would not dissipate unless Mr. Obama made another statement, while others were wary of him revisiting the episode and particularly did not want him to apologize, they said.

During the morning, police union members held a news conference in Cambridge calling on Mr. Obama to apologize for demeaning Sergeant Crowley and suggesting it was Professor Gates who had made it a racial incident.

“The facts of this case suggest that the president used the right adjective but directed it to the wrong party,” said Sgt. Dennis O’Connor, president of the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association.

Sgt. Leon Lashley, an African-American officer at the Gates house that day, separately told The Associated Press that he supported Sergeant Crowley’s actions “100 percent.”

The police event contributed to what one White House aide called a “critical mass,” but aides said it was not the deciding factor, noting that Mr. Obama had not watched. Shortly after noon, Mr. Obama called his senior adviser, David Axelrod. “I’m going to call Sergeant Crowley and then I think I ought to step into the press room and address it,” Mr. Axelrod said he said.

The president dictated some thoughts intended to avoid directly blaming either the professor or the officer, and speechwriters had less than two hours to craft remarks. Mr. Obama called Sergeant Crowley about 2:15 p.m. and they spoke for five minutes. He went to the briefing room to make his statement, then called Professor Gates about 3:15 p.m.

Mr. Obama said the issue was making it harder for him to focus attention on health care. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but nobody has been paying much attention to health care,” he said.

He did not apologize but softened his language. “I continue to believe, based on what I have heard, that there was an overreaction in pulling Professor Gates out of his home to the station,” he said. “I also continue to believe, based on what I heard, that Professor Gates probably overreacted as well.”

Mr. Obama described Sergeant Crowley as an “outstanding police officer and a good man” who has “a fine track record on racial sensitivity.” But he said the incident showed that “because of the difficulties of the past, you know, African-Americans are sensitive to these issues.”

John Payton, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said that unlike white presidents who could dance around racial issues, Mr. Obama had to be direct. “That’s the whole difference. Bush could punt. Obama can’t punt,” he said. “This issue resonates with him.”

Christopher Edley Jr., a former adviser to President Bill Clinton on race issues and now law school dean at the University of California, Berkeley, said the episode dispelled the “rosy hopefulness” stemming from Mr. Obama’s election “in case anybody needed more evidence that we’re not beyond race.”

Peter Baker and Helene Cooper reported from Washington. Abby Goodnough contributed from Boston, Liz Robbins from New York and Jeff Zeleny from Washington.

Posted by Kofi Natambu at 3:44 AM
Labels: Cambridge Police Department, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Harvard University, Police abuse, President Obama, Racial Profiling, Sgt. James Crowley