Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Puzzled or Muzzled?

In December of last year at the height of the great debate about the fiscal cliff, President Obama offered the following comments as a part of an explanation about the difficulty he was having in his efforts to strike a deal with his Republican counterparts:
"At some point there has got to be a recognition, on the part of my Republican friends-- take the deal!  They will be able to claim that they worked with me over the past two years to reduce the deficit more than any other deficit reduction package;  that we will have stabilized it over the next 10 years.  That is a significant achievement for them.  They should be proud of it, but they keep on finding ways to say no, as opposed to finding ways to say yes.  It is very hard for them to say yes to me.  At some point they've got to take me out of it, and think about their voters, and think about what's best for the country.  If they do that, if they are not worried about who's winning and who's losing, that they score a point on the President, that they extract that last little concession, that they force him to do something that he doesn't really want to do, just for the heck of it, and they focus on what's best for the country, then I actually think we can get this done."  
Now it is easy to chalk this up purely within the context of political posturing and a President who at the moment was using the bully pulpit to sway public opinion to his side.  However there are many like me, who upon hearing these words, immediately discerned that the President also could have been conveying something that was much more nuanced-- that the difficulty of the moment had to do with the possibility that many of his "friends" on the other side of the aisle were having a hard time compromising with America's first Black President.

After scouring the e-waves I have found little that suggests that Obama was implicitly making racialized remarks.  I began to wonder if my own social location as a slave descended, post-civil rights, post black-power, African-American living cynically in what we say is a post-racial America has caused me to "overread" Barack's comments.  After reflecting more than a few weeks on the matter, I believe that the President was trying to tell us in the best way that he could, that issues of racism and prejudice are alive and well and affect even him-- the "leader of the free world"-- even at a moment when our national economy teetered on the brink of disaster.

Some of you reading this will have a hard time accepting this.  Know that I understand; but the truth of this matter is beyond compelling, particularly when you put it in the context of other racialized and disrespectful circumstances that have beset President Obama during his tenure.  Need I recount them here?  Okay just a few:
  • Barack became the earliest presidential contender to be assigned a secret security detail during his first campaign run in 2007.  Why-- because of all of the hate and threats that were being directed toward him and his family.
  • At more than a few of John McCain's rallies during Obama's first run for the presidency, supporters shouted "kill him!" (referencing Obama, and thus contributing to the early deployment of Secret Service Officer's on Barack's behalf).
  • In 2009 a poll question was highlighted on a popular social media site asking the question "should Obama be killed?"  Hundreds responded all too enthusiastically to the site-- thousands might have before the site was taken down.  
  • South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson shouts "liar" during President Obama's speech to Congress in 2009.
  • President Obama has been consistently dogged by questions related to his citizenship.  Detractors demanded his birth certificate, citing that he is ineligible to be president per Article 2 of the US Constitution. 
  • Since becoming president there have been numerous and unfortunate characterizations of him as Hitler, as a gestapo officer, as a "watermelon, chicken eating 'coon', etc. . ." Even Whole Foods got in on the act most recently using a depiction of the President to promote their organic chicken line (http://www.vosizneias.com/124813/2013/02/21/upper-west-side-ny-whole-foods-plucks-obama-chicken-ad/).  
  • Even the FLOTUS, Michelle Obama, has experienced the brunt of these racialized attacks, with inappropriate comments about her physique and the characterization of her as an "angry black woman."
Back to the December press conference:  The President also stated that the apparent impasse with Congress was "puzzling."  Yeah right!  The Prez. wasn't puzzled- if anything he was muzzled.  It happens to many African-American leaders with racially and ethnically mixed bases of support.  You can never speak too loudly, too boldly, or too candidly about the issue of race or racism, neither about socio-economic issues that acutely (a)effects black folks-- for fear of offending or alienating the masses.  However, the most cunning and saavy among us are able from time to time to sneak in a coded message like Brother Obama here-- so that those who have ears will hear and understand.  

Imagine this-- What if President Obama said this in his December presser:  "At first I was puzzled that congress refused to take the deal; but after speaking with my wife Michelle, and my closest advisors I think I've figured out the causes of the friction between us:  They are having a hard time negotiating with me because I'm Black."

At first blush this sounds simple and ridiculous doesn't it?  It's not really-- not to those of us who have experienced this all of our lives and in our professional careers.  Isn't it sad, a Harvard trained lawyer, with community organizing roots on Chicago's South Side can't speak explicitly about matters related to his own felt racism-- let alone about how racism undermines Black humanity-- and the entire country's quest for her greatest potential?  To do so would result in immediate negative consequences, alienation from his larger base, and the age-old accusation that he was playing the infamous:

 Race Card.

Rather than risk this kind of ridicule and pain, many black leaders choose silence and/or they resort to coded language.

As I dance this line between puzzled and muzzled please don't think that I am blaming or somehow disappointed in President Obama or other Black public leaders who speak in this way.  I feel their pain and understand their plight-- I've done it myself.  This is more a commentary on the dynamics of racialized power that is present in our public discourse and every other aspect of our society-- but that's for another blog, or two, or three-- or better yet maybe a public truth-telling forum (and set of actions) to address racism and prejudice and its effects--- nahhh nobody in Montgomery County would be interested in that-- or would you?  If so say so here.