Say It Loud: I’m Running for President and I’m Proud!
Note: This is the first of four posts that we’ll be physically writing together, as we are both at Princeton University teaching Political Communication for the Junior State of America Program (our eighth summer doing so).
This past Thursday, Tavis Smiley hosted the first All-American Presidential Forum with Democratic presidential candidates at Howard University. The conversation was limited to domestic issues, and most of those centered on racial issues. Whether one might call it “pandering” or simply “being attentive to the audience,” there was universal attempt to connect with the overwhelmingly black audience in the auditorium. Most of the comments were quite predictable (e.g., none of the candidates argued that we were past our racial issues or that we need to work harder to rectify injustice based on race), but a number of items are quite notable.
It was not surprising, for instance, to hear the candidates signal their opposition to the Supreme Court decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 et al. Repeatedly referencing the landmark desegregation case of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, the candidates noted how the June 28 decision was an embarrassing step back for establishing a culture of racial equality.
Bill Richardson, however, made a very interesting and revealing statement about his thoughtfulness on the issue of race (though unless you read this blog regularly or are otherwise familiar with the nuances of race theory, you might have missed it): He noted that race was more than policies and laws, but that it also involved “dealing with bigotry and racism that exists in this country.” As we often note in this space, these are two terms that are too often used interchangeably in our public discourse. It is possible that Richardson was merely being redundant (he’s not the smoothest candidate in these “debates,” in case you hadn’t noticed), but it is equally possible that he recognizes the important difference between systemic racism and individual-level bigotry. (It would have been nice if he had elaborated on it, but alas, even the thoughtful Tavis Smiley, in the halls of the esteemed Howard University, must succumb to the pressures of covering as much ground as possible and limiting each candidate’s time to speak.)
Dennis Kucinich made reference to his support of Jesse Jackson Jr.’s bill that would move to amend the U.S. Constitution so that equal opportunities in public education were ensured. Mike Gravel made reference to “black African Americans.” We thought it a curious distinction (perhaps Teresa Heinz Kerry is an appropriate example that not all “African Americans” are black?), but we were pleased that straight shooting former senator didn’t harken back to his youth and refer to “Negroes” or “colored people.”
For his part, Barack Obama was, of course (and as usual), in a unique position. While all of the candidates used first person plural pronouns to connect with the audience, there was an ambiguous feel from the white candidates, as in “We Americans.” When Obama used it, however, the connotation was that he was speaking of (and to) black Americans more specifically. That placed him in an awkward position. On the positive side, a meaningful connection with the audience was easier to construct. On the negative side, to the extent that he said things that might be hard for a black audience to swallow, he left himself (once again) open to the charge that he’s “not that black” or “not really black.”
For instance, when he spoke of AIDS, he said, “We don’t talk about these things in our schools or churches.” If another candidate had uttered the same sentence, it would have suggested that, on the whole, Americans do not approach such issues in schools and church. But from Obama, the implication was that the topic was not specifically discussed in black schools and churches. One might also interpret this as attacking homophobia in the black community, a criticism that none of the other candidates would have been able to pull off.
Joe Biden seemed to try, though, arguing that there was “denial” in the (black?) community about issues relating to HIV-AIDS. On the other hand, Obama seemed to want to capitalize on homophobic attitudes by engaging in a cheap frat-boy yuk to reinforce his heterosexuality. While Joe Biden was arguing that there is no shame to wear a condom or be tested for AIDS, Obama interjected, with a big smile on his face, that he wanted to make clear that he was tested with his wife. That brought applause and laughter from the audience. The gag worked to suggest that any inferences of his sexuality were comical – that his masculinity was above being questioned.
At other times, Obama clearly used “us” to refer to the black community. When referring to the criminal justice system, he argued that “it’s critical to have a president who sends a signal that we are going to have a system of justice that is not just us, but is everybody.”
Interestingly, when Obama charged that the African American community is weakened and that it “has a disease to its immune system” (a cleaver play on words in answering the AIDS question), the camera panned to scholar Michael Eric Dyson, who has famously engaged in a public defense of the black community – and black youth in particular – when folks like Bill Cosby have set their critical sights on such issues as responsibility and self-respect.
On the whole, it was refreshing to have an entire town hall meeting with the slate of candidates focused on the issue of racial equality. We can hardly wait for the Republican All-American Presidential Forum on September 27.