Obama’s Inauguration & A New Era of Learning about Racism

A glorious moment after 8 years of dumbing downEveryone, it seems, has high hopes for the new Obama administration.  My hope is that this marks the beginning of a new era of learning about racism. If the news coverage of President Obama’s inauguration is any indication, then there is a steep learning curve ahead for the predominantly white media.

President Obama’s inaugural address (Creative Commons License photo credit: Wolf Gang) never referred to the martyrs of abolition and the civil rights movement that made his ascent possible, and made only the slightest, passing reference to the racist discrimination in the U.S. when he said:

This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed – why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

Fortunately, both Rev. Lowery’s benediction and the inaugural poet, Elizabeth Alexander, referenced this legacy. In Alexander’s inaugural poem she said:

Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.

If there were a press that was well-versed in American history, we might have had journalists who were filling in some of details of that legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation and present-day institutional discrimination.  Yet, very few news outlets made any reference to the fact that enslaved Africans and African Americans, who counted as only 3/5’s of a person in the U.S. Constitution, built both the White House and the US Capitol.

However, a number of the predominantly white, mainstream news outlets have begun to note an ever-so-slight shift in the cultural zeitgeist for talking about issues of race.   For example, The New York Times in a recent piece in the “style” section, declared that it’s now “OK to talk about race,” because President Obama offers a comfortable way for whites to approach a topic that they generally regard as taboo.    And, the Washington Post noted the shifting social scene in D.C.,  observing that whites and blacks will now mingle socially because:

“With a black first family in the White House and a diverse group of appointees and Cabinet nominees, the all-white dinner party feels all wrong.”

Fascinating.  So, day before yesterday, an all-white dinner party felt so right?   In another example, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow acknowledged on her show the night before the inauguration (h/t to Michelle Rediker for the exact quote),

“The good news is that the first African American is being sworn in as president that that means the media will talk about race. The bad news is that the first African American is being sworn in as president and that means the media will talk about race. We really are not that good at that good at this. Notice I said ‘we’? Ok a little humility here is in order. Why do we so often fail at talking well about this most important of topics? Well, Princeton Professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell will be here to talk about….”

In the rest of the cringe-worthy interview, Maddow asks Harris-Lacewell if the Obama inauguration ushers in a ‘grace period’ for whites in talking about race.   Harris-Lacwell deftly handles the Maddow’s quesiton, acknowledging that black people always have a ‘grace period’ in place for talking to white people about race, “we get asked about our hair, that sort of thing” she said.  As refreshing as it is to see any African American woman consulted as an expert on one of the major networks (and Harris-Lacewell is extremely smart and telegenic), Maddow’s clumsy forays into discussions of race are telling.   Like her counterparts, the other white journalists at The New York Times and the Washington Post, Maddow still approaches the subject of race from within the white racial frame.  Within this frame it is only blacks who “have race” and thus, whites need blacks to come on the show to educate the uncomfortable and unenlightened white host.  I have to confess that I’m a huge fan of Maddow’s (she’s wicked smart, the first out-lesbian Rhodes Scholar and holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Oxford), so it pains me to see her struggle so publicly with this blind spot.  In my view, Maddow has a tremendous opportunity to lead the way for white liberals and show them how to get smart about issues of race and racism.

Maddow asks the rhetorical question:  Why do we so often fail at talking well about this most important of topics? Yet, she seems unable to answer this question.

The answer to that question is “we” fail because “we” don’t know the history of racism in this country.   Of course, the “we” in both the quesiton and answer here refers to white people.  And, “we” white people need a new era of learning about racism.  The Obama Presidency is an opportunity for white people, especially white people in the mainstream press, to educate themselves about both the history of racism and the present-day reality of racism in the U.S. and around the world.

Some are suggesting that the end of the Bush regime with the inauguration of a president who is the author of two books and a former law professor, signals the end of America’s love affair with stupidity.   I hope this is true.  I also hope that this love of ignorance about America’s pervasive problem with race and racism is over, too.   In one of the many lists that are making the round of the Internet these days, one caught my attention, called the “7 Things You Can Do To Help Obama Restore America. (h/t Jakrose via Twitter).  Number 4 on this list is “Learn American History.”  I like that as an action step, but it needs to be amended to be “African American History,” as this is where all the stuff about race and racism usually gets stashed.  As Joe writes in the opening to his book, Systemic Racism:

“Do you Know who Ann Dandridge, Wilism Costin, West Ford, and John Custis were? Very few Americans can answer this question in the affirmative.  Yet these Americans should be well known, for they were all close relatives of George and Martha Washington.”

As he goes on to recount, these were also enslaved people whose names are largely unknown.  Until we understand the intricate ways that race and racism are woven into every aspect of the U.S., from George Washington through to Barack Obama, from those who “picked the cotton and the lettuce,” from those who built the White House and who clean and serve in it today, to those who now live in it, we’ll remain struck dumb, literally rendered mute by our inability to talk about race and racism.  It’s new day for learning about racism.


  1. I can appreciate your frustration that Obama didn’t discuss at further length America’s sordid racial history that made his inauguration. But, as a political scientists and pragmatist, I understand why. His March 12 address in Philadelphia, PA on race was all he wanted to talk on the matter. He didn’t want his campaign to be about race and he certainly didn’t want his inauguration to be about race.

  2. Jessie Author

    Hey Ashley, KP, thanks for your comments. I don’t know that I’m frustrated, maybe I am. I just meant it as an observation, really. My point being that lots and lots of people are “reading race” onto his speech, his election, his inauguration, and if you look at it closely, it’s not coming from him. As you accurately note, he spoke directly about race in that Philadelphia speech (against the advice of his closest aides), and then dropped it. I thought Harris-Lacewell said something that was very accurate in the rest of her interview with Maddow that I mentioned above. She said something to the effect that the campaign “let Tina Fey defeat Sarah Palin,” and they “let the rest of us talk about race.” I agree with you that this is a pragmatic, political choice. I also think it’s important for the rest of us to remain cognizant that it’s happening. And, for those of us committed to the work of anti-racism, it means continuing the work of the ‘ground game’ that so many of the frontline Obama campaign workers did.

  3. Reading your comment that most stuff about the history of race and racism is stashed in Afam history, it occurred to me that that could be the reason that “they” so often fail at discuss race. Not only is it something blacks have that white don’t, it’s something that only blacks experience. It’s almost as if they think there are these evil racist, fairies disadvantaging people of color – cause certainly “they” aren’t racist. -That’s just an idea I haven’t fully thought out. Sorry if it’s nonsensical.

    The other comment I have relates to Rev. Eugene Rivers’s comment to Chris Matthews that when Obama said it’s time to put away childish things, he was saying to black people that it’s time for us to quit complaining in the backseat (being childish) and drive the car (being an adult). It’s disturbing on 2 levels. 1 – I heard no such thing. 2 – By the logic of his argument, complaining in the backseat prior to Obama officially being president wouldn’t have been childish, and as he’s only been president less than 8hrs when Rivers made the comment, why chastise instead of waiting to see what would happen, mostly that racism would no long disadvantage people of color.

  4. Mordy

    Great post Jessie. A few things come to mind- Despite Maddow’s clumsy forays into this topic, at least she is willing to make them. If we know anything at all about the human condition it is that experience makes us better at things. Perhaps she should already ‘be better’ at this, but if she isn’t then this might be the only way she gets better at it. I know your piece isn’t designed to be a critique of Rachel Maddow. I got a similarly unsettling feeling the other night when Larry King had Sean Combs, Seal and Kevin Johnson on to talk about the coming inauguration. It angers me that their opinion is only worthy now because the president is black. If anything, it seems abundantly clear that the white media don’t really know what to do with this topic.

  5. Ready to Leave In Your Face Racist Texas

    I have a problem with not talking about race and politics. It seems that “they” don’t want to talk about it because the truth hurts. We can’t be responsible for what we don’t know yes. However, we are responsible for our own knowledge. When it comes to other to topics we must be educated. We have to read their books, learn their history, eat at their restaurants, watch their news, television shows and movies. Why can’t we talk about what we feel is happening to us without a constant rebutle of what we feel is only in our own minds. You would think if more than one person feels that racism keeps them from advancing in careers, getting a comparable education, or quality healthcare that it can’t be everyone’s imagination.
    Also, please don’t be so silly to think that President Obama didn’t know what Rev. Lowry was going to say for a prayer. Come on he is the President.

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