DEITZ: Playing the race card



Ian Deitz

While many hailed Obama’s major speech on race last week as the most brilliant since Martin Luther King Jr., some parts of it were questioned.

In particular, the point he made about his white grandmother, who had occasionally uttered racial slurs around him when he was a child, sparked a bit of discussion. The question of whether he “threw her under the bus” was inevitably raised.

In a recent radio interview, Obama attempted to clarify his statement about his grandmother. He said something that I take issue with:

“The point I was making was not that my grandmother harbors any racial animosity. She doesn’t. But she is a typical white person who, if she sees somebody on the street that she doesn’t know, there’s a reaction that’s been bred into our experiences that don’t go away and that sometimes come out in the wrong way, and that’s just the nature of race in our society.”

If you listen to the sound clip (which, if you’re inclined, is available on YouTube), the tone in which he utters the words “typical white person” will jump out at you. It’s the kind of tone I would use when saying something like, “Oh God, here we go again.” As I interpret it, his tone is very cynical and condescending and leaves no doubt as to whether he really meant what he said.

I am glad this quote has received the coverage it has in the mainstream media, given the questionable reference to the “typical white person.” There can be no doubt that if Clinton or McCain had spoken of the “typical black person,” the nation would be in uproar. And that would be the end of the campaign’s chances – period.

Obama’s campaign did realize that the statement was a mistake and quickly moved to clarify it by claiming that Obama was merely referring to his grandmother’s generation, not white people in general.

To me, such an interpretation contradicts the plain meaning of the words that came out of Obama’s mouth. He used the present tense and repeatedly referred to present-day society – not the society of his grandmother’s day.

Of course, it might be argued that Obama has a right to generalize white people because he is, in fact, half white. However, a stereotype is a stereotype is a stereotype. I do not personally believe that Obama is racist against white people, but I think that any generalization about a large and diverse block of people requires an apology.

One might also argue that Obama’s statement should not be considered a stereotype per se because it is accurate; he was merely stating a general truth that when white people see a black person they don’t know on the street, they instinctively perceive danger.

I am skeptical of this claim. Whether someone perceives danger in a random stranger on the street depends not on other things like demeanor and clothing.

I know for a fact that all white people are not fearful of blacks because I myself am not fearful of blacks. And I don’t think anyone could rightly claim that I am simply not consciously aware of my fear of blacks. People frequently treat strangers more coldly than they would acquaintances, regardless of those strangers’ skin color.

If there is one lesson for Obama that can be drawn from all of this, it’s that he should stop focusing on the issue of race.

His speech last week was clearly designed to turn the negative publicity surrounding his pastor on its head, but it was not entirely successful.

Obama risks jeopardizing his campaign at a crucial point in the election process by focusing on such a sensitive subject. Polarizing the country along racial lines is exactly what we do not need.


Ian Deitz is a senior political science major from Gettysburg, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected].