What You Won't Hear in the Presidential Debates: A Response to Racism in America

"We have the opportunity to send President Obama back to Chicago ... or Kenya.” This is what James Thompson, son of Wisconsin GOP senate candidate Tommy Thompson, recently told a roomful of white people at an event hosted by the Kenosha Republican Party. Classy. But you won’t hear this incident addressed by either Mitt Romney or President Barack Obama at the third and final presidential debate tonight. Nor will you hear any witty, thoughtful, focused responses to the countless other racist jokes and comments unleashed by conservatives and birther movement followers during these last months of campaigning.

Comments like those made by card-carrying race-baiter Newt Gingrich, who smugly referred to Obama as “the best food-stamp president in American history.” Comments that are then followed by a flurry of outraged blogs and news segments. Sometimes clever SNL skits are born and people laugh at our general stupidity as a nation. And then they forget about it until the next satire-friendly, racially explosive gaffe makes headlines. Kind of like Black History Month. It only matters during its designated time slot.
To be sure, much has been expected of Barack Obama as the first black President of the United States, particularly from black Americans. There are those who feel that his inaction on behalf of working class black Americans comes from a lack of passion. Others say it’s about Obama's alleged fear that he will be viewed as “too black,” or worse, as “the angry black man,” a stereotype not lost on white conservative pundits like Tucker Carlson. Earlier this month, Carlson posted a video on his site, The Daily Caller, featuring Obama giving a speech from 2007 about failed efforts by the government to help survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Carlson accuses the President of “whipping up race hatred” in the speech by using “an accent he almost never adopts in public.” Dear Tucker Carlson: It's called code-switching, bro. And also, you’re an idiot.
Too angry, not angry enough—the president is black. He knows it, and so does everyone else. That’s the fact of it. And what that means in terms of his presidency is ultimately his call.
Not that I wouldn’t dearly love to hear Obama address race in a spirited and nuanced way. But right now, he is a president trying to win reelection, for whom the political risks of publicly addressing race and racism outweigh the potential rewards. If during the last debate Obama were to evoke Martin Luther King, say, or God forbid, Malcolm X, it would almost certainly prompt concern among white voters that his plan for a second term is to only serve black America. And regardless of criticism and conjecture from black voters, we (except for Stacey Dash) will still largely vote to reelect Obama. Besides, this is what second terms are for—establishing a legacy.
So, here’s what I suggest regarding a more structured and committed way of looking at race for the president’s next term in office.
First, establish a clear vision that extends several steps (and years) beyond President Clinton’s (admirable) year-long Initiative on Race in 1997, and outline an ongoing, evolutionary effort in leadership and racial awareness that is set up to become self-sustaining. Next, make it strikingly evident that the effort is not even remotely based on the notion that black folks still have beef with white racist blockheads, because that’s not a conversation on race. That’s a Spike Lee movie.
Appoint one person in each state’s capital to the position of Race Wrangler or something that doesn’t include the word “diversity,” because truly, no one in this country effectively knows what that word means, and one Chief Race Wrangler in the White House who oversees all the others. Give each state representative the financial means to build a lean team of administrators, fundraisers and programmers who work year-round on producing programs, film screenings, readings, roundtable discussions, salons, subway series, journalism, and webcasts that address race head-on in all its complexity.
Maybe lift a headline from the day’s news—like, say, this one from The Huffington Post last week: “Black Women Murdered by Men Most Often Die by Gunfire, Usually by Someone They Know.” Invite a discussion with young people and a few notables of varying generations to address the ramifications of this headline, which is problematic on many levels, not least of all being that no black women were interviewed for the piece, and it's written by a white guy; film it, assign a high-profile journalist to write about it, take it on the road, and include everyone across generations and ethnicities and genders. Then post it all on the initiative’s glorious website.
Do these things. Talk about these things. Write about these things. All day. Every day. You're welcome, President Obama.

Image via (cc) flickr user portobellospy
Center for American Progress Action Fund

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