Obama Versus the Gotcha Narrative

We’re about to find out how serious America really is about having a national conversation on race.

On Tuesday, Barack Obama offered perhaps the most thoughtful and sophisticated oration on race ever delivered by an American politician, a remarkable address in which he—the son of a white Kansan and a native Kenyan—acknowledged the resentments and fears that define both sides of America’s racial divide and, essentially, warned of the perils of the current, artificial national dialogue that tackles “race only as a spectacle.”

Yes, the speech was prompted by a political imperative—Obama’s need to create distance between himself and his longtime minister—but no one can argue that it was calibrated purely, primarily or even significantly for political effect. The easy, politically safe route would have been simply to toss Jeremiah Wright under the bus, to spare no harsh adjective in condemning the anti-American caricature of a man to which the public had been introduced.

That is not how Obama played it. Instead, he treated Wright like what he is: a human being, a man filled with contradictions, someone who has given much of his life to ministering to a desperate community many Americans would rather not think about, and someone whose life’s work has now been reduced to the inflammatory, context-free apex of an overheated sermon. Contrary to the claims of some on the right, who either didn’t listen to the speech or simply didn’t want to, Obama condemned the specific remarks by Wright that have been called into question.

But then he went further, much further, asking Americans to consider that this country’s maddeningly sluggish racial journey produced generations of people, white and black, similar to Jeremiah Wright: prone, in their worst moments, to uttering ignorant, hurtful and hateful slurs, but equally ready, at their best, to perform some act of kindness and generosity, big or small, for their fellow man.

The point, of course, was that racial reconciliation is difficult and elusive, but hardly impossible, and that it requires recognition from whites and blacks alike of the contradictions that live within all of us. What Obama called for, in short, was a genuine, meaningful and unsparing national conversation about race.

It’s easy for most Americans to accept, in theory, that kind of challenge. But the country has just been handed a test to see if we’re serious about it.

Yesterday morning, about 48 hours after his speech, Obama appeared on a sports radio talk show in Philadelphia. In the course of the conversation, host Angelo Cataldi brought up Obama’s Tuesday speech, homing in on a section of it in which Obama discussed the white grandmother who raised him and the contradictions that she herself embodied on the subject of race.

“The point I was making,” Obama told Cataldi, “was not that my grandmother harbors any racial animosity, but that she is a typical white person. If she sees somebody on the street that she doesn’t know (pause), there’s a reaction in her that doesn’t go away and it comes out in the wrong way.”

Almost immediately, the online press seized upon this comment, and specifically Obama’s use of the term “typical white person.” So did some in the blogosphere. This is in keeping with the same simplistic, artificial and worthless parameters of the fake conversation in which this country has been engaged for years: Home in on some imprecisely phrased characterization and extrapolate it to its worst possible implications; create, in effect, a straw man for cynical politicians and media members to attack, until finally the person who uttered the offending comment is forced to apologize or clarify.

It’s a fairly brainless exercise. It’s also exactly what Obama warned about in his speech, when he noted how easy it is—and how little courage it requires—to take a quote or a clip or a caricature and “to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.”

The authentic conversation that Obama wants requires a tolerance of imprecise language; a recognition that we haven’t accomplished anything by demanding that public figures speak in a sterile, meaningless language whose primary aim is to avoid giving offense to anyone for any reason. This national conversation can only take place if we resolve to stop playing gotcha with quotes and to begin exploring the context around the quotes that tend to make headlines.

Obama’s on-air comment in Philadelphia was unscripted, off-the-cuff and conversational. He was doing what Americans are fond of saying they want their politicians doing: Talking more like a human being than a robot. The “typical white person” remark was insignificant and revealed nothing meaningful about Obama, unless we’re really prepared to believe the notion that Obama—who was raised by his white mother and white grandparents—is anti-white. To get hung up on it would be to choose—once again—a cheap, easy, surface-level conversation over a deep, probing and meaningful one.

It’s not yet clear how this “story” will play out. The comment drew fire on some blogs and won mention on most mainstream news sites. But, as of late Thursday, it hadn’t landed with the impact of the Wright clip.

Perhaps soon we can get back to talking about something real.

Obama Versus the Gotcha Narrative