The first black president of the United States addressed the oldest civil rights organization in the country yesterday. It was one of those moments when one begins to feel the past fading into the future, when the full scope of what happened last November is pulled back into focus. I've long since gotten used to the fact that Obama is president, I've gotten used to covering and criticizing the administration. But moments like last night remind me that I still haven't entirely wrapped my head around the significance of a man who could have once been sold as property occupying the highest office in the land.
It would be possible, after the last four days of Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, for someone not familiar with this country to believe that racism against people of color had in fact ended, and that racism only affects white men who work hard and get denied jobs they clearly deserved. You'd be forgiven for not knowing that the nation spent two centuries with some form of a legally-enforced racial caste system.
The president offered an implicit rebuttal to such willful ignorance yesterday -- without mentioning the hearings -- speaking of how "the pain of discrimination is still felt in America. By African-American women paid less for doing the same work as colleagues of a different color and gender. By Latinos made to feel unwelcome in their own country. By Muslim Americans viewed with suspicion for simply kneeling down to pray. By our gay brothers and sisters, still taunted, still attacked, still denied their rights."
The internal politics of the latter part of that statement -- the part about gay people -- gives cover for NAACP President Ben Jealous to go further on LGBT rights. But when I was scanning my Google reader, I saw this headline from the New York Times: "Obama Tells Fellow Blacks: ‘No Excuses’ for Any Failure". To the mainstream media, there are no internal black politics beyond heroic, responsible scolds and the lazy Negroes who refuse to listen to them and blame racism for their every failure. When Obama says things like, "The state of our schools is not an African-American problem; it’s an American problem," he is making a statement whose simplicity belies its radicalism: Black problems have never been seen as American problems, they have been seen as a burden on America -- hence the Times headline. If the President is capable of upending that view, he will have done something no American has done before.
The President's message was far more nuanced -- and far more reflective of mainstream black opinion -- than media narratives about race ever seem to acknowledge: that while black people still feel the sting of racism, none of us see ourselves as victims incapable of improving our circumstances. Obama wasn't wagging his finger. When he said that "all these innovative programs and expanded opportunities will not, in and of themselves, make a difference if each of us, as parents and as community leaders, fail to do our part by encouraging excellence in our children," he was stating the obvious. That's why everyone cheered. But if the President actually believed that all that was required was a stronger grip on our bootstraps, he wouldn't be pushing health care reform.
The dominant storyline from the NAACP speech is "no excuses," because that message makes so many Americans feel as though their obligations to deal with intolerance and bigotry have been met, because it soothes the white guilt of those who would like to prefer not to see black problems as "American problems." But if that's all people took away from the president's speech, they simply weren't listening.
-- A. Serwer