A scripted dialogue

By Michelle Chen Jul 25, 2009

President Obama’s walkback on his comment about Cambridge police and Henry Gates will read differently to different people—an admission of impropriety, a calculated political maneuver, or, to those who hoped the incident would spark a major public discussion, as a quiet surrender. Adam Serwer at TAP comments on Obama’s effort to cool down the media uproar:

now we know what a black man can’t do — not if he’s president and not if he wants to get anything done: He can’t tell white people something about race they aren’t willing to hear, no matter how true it is. Regardless of the specifics of the Gates incident, Obama’s larger point about racial profiling is, as the president put it, a "fact." A culturally skewed media applauds when Obama presses black folks to do better, but when it comes to challenging white people, well, that just isn’t appropriate. Maybe this is a bridge too far—it’s hard to imagine any politician getting away with calling cops stupid. But this conversation is inevitably charged with the tumultuous history of black folks and law enforcement. Obama’s language describing the Cambridge Police was overly derisive. But this feels like much more than a personal apology to Sgt. Crowley. Obama did try to salvage his larger argument, saying that we need to spend "a little more time listening to each other, and focus on how we can generally improve relationships between police officers and minority communities." But that point will probably be lost. In the end, Obama’s statement will be internalized in part as an apology to white people for not knowing his place — which is, at least in part, to make everyone feel really awesome about having a black president.

Is this the social contract that “post-racialism” has drafted? It’s interesting how public anxieties about race tend to swell during times of political tumult. After all, when was the last time the media fixated on a clash between a powerful person of color and working-class white civil servants? It was only days ago that conservatives were nervously waving the banner of the decent, hardworking American firefighter, seeking to demonize a Latina woman who seemed to threaten a white-dominated political order. Both the Sotomayor and Gates battles reflect a spasmodic meltdown on the right, with conservatives clinging ferociously to their imperiled sense of entitlement. Some have already gone off the deep end. The Birthers are working spastically to otherize Obama as not just any Black guy, but an undocumented immigrant. Leslie Savan at the Nation sees the Birthers’ evangelical zeal as the last writhings of a dying ideology:

It’s paranoid, it’s deranged, and it’s as American as Andrew Jackson and the rebel yell. What’s different now is that the nativist right has finally had their bluff called by the landslide election of a black man as president, and their centuries-old legitimacy is in question as it never has been since Appomattox. So they are desperately projecting that self-doubt onto reality itself.

Flailing, obsessive, pathetic—probably. But before dismissing the wingnuts, notice that their movement parallels a rising tide of racial neurosis throughout the political arena. Laughing at white-supremacist crazies distracts us from an overarching delusion in which we’re all complicit. When confronted with an embarrassing incident of racial conflict, the political establishment’s impulse is to bury it under a heap of apologies and chuckles. Soon, the main players in the Cambridge drama will return to their prescribed roles as social critic or humble cop or president, while the audience will remain in a theater of collective denial about the realities of race in America. The media, and even our wisest politicians, are well trained on when to cue the lights. Image: B. Carter / AP