This is for Vanessa in South Florida.
She emailed me a few days ago after spotting a bumper sticker that read: 2012 Don’t Re-Nig. “Honestly,” she wrote, “I don’t know how to process my outrage, so I’m handing it off to you. I know that President Obama’s race has always been an issue to many people, and perhaps I live a relatively sheltered life in Democratic-leaning Broward County, but I’m still stunned by the sentiment. I’m even more stunned, naive though that may be, by the fact that some people believe it’s appropriate to flaunt that sentiment — and that it’s not a source of shame.”
Vanessa, I’m afraid I’m not nearly as shocked as you. After all, the sentiment that bumper sticker expresses has been part of the Obama narrative since before he took office.
Some of us grapple with a sense of racial and cultural dislocation, the jolting sensation in a changing nation, that their prerogatives as white people, assumptions so ingrained as to have never previously required the slightest thought, are now in question. They want “their” country back. As the great satirist Randy Newman sings in a new satirical ballad:
“I’m dreaming of a white president
“Just like the ones we’ve always had
“A real live white man who knows the score
“How to handle money or start a war.”
But for others of us, it’s not anything so nuanced as a sense of dislocation — just the same old hate as always.
Either way, the world has changed enough that one cannot openly express such things. So instead, it gets hidden in oblique language, false controversies and putative “jokes.”
But Vanessa — when one in four Americans thinks there’s some mystery over the president’s birthplace, while Mitt Romney (son of a man born in Mexico) and John McCain (born in the Panama Canal Zone) face no such scrutiny; when tea partiers denounce health-care reform as “reparations;” when Rep. Lynn Westmoreland calls Obama “uppity,” then-Rep. Geoff Davis calls him “boy” and Rep. Joe Wilson yells out, “You lie!” during a presidential speech; when Rush Limbaugh says Obama’s election means it’s open season on white kids; when Obama is called a terrorist, a “food stamp president” and a “Chicago thug” — why should “Don’t Re-Nig” come as a surprise? It’s just the next logical step.
One cannot openly express one’s hate — right up till the day one can. Though even then, one may have to delude oneself.
When he was asked about that bumper sticker, Billy Smith of Ludowici, Ga., who manufactured it with his wife, Paula, told a reporter: “We didn’t mean it in a racist way.” The driver of that car would likely have said the same. But they do not lie for our benefit. They lie to conscience — and to self.
So this is the paradigm of our age — self-delusion on the one hand, a guy trying to govern on the other, while hemmed in by race, defined in crude, stereotypical imagery, yet unable to fight it, talk about it, or even admit he sees it, for fear of compromising his effectiveness, being dismissed as, God forbid — “an angry black man.”
Yet we hope our way forward anyhow.
There hangs in the White House this photo of the president bowing to allow a little black boy to touch his head. The 5-year-old, his brother and his parents were in the Oval Office with Obama and the boy had a question. “I want to know if my hair is just like yours,” he said, so softly Obama had to ask him to repeat himself. He did, and Obama invited him to see for himself. The boy hesitated.
“Touch it, dude!” the president said.
The boy did. “So, what do you think?” asked Obama.
“Yes,” said the boy, “it does feel the same.”
That child’s name is Jacob. And Vanessa, while some of us are dreaming of a white president, well, it’s likely Jacob has some new dreams of his own.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit: AP/Luke Sharrett, pool