My Own Incoherent Distress

Michelle Obama addresses the graduating class at King College Prep High School in Chicago on Tuesday, 10 June 2015. (Photo: Christian K Lee/Associated Press)

“That’s a burden that President Obama and I proudly carry every single day in the White House, because we know that everything we do and say can either confirm the myths about folks like us―or it can change those myths.”

Michelle Obama

This is not, technically speaking, fair.

Then again, such is life. Michelle Obama stood before the graduating class of King College Prep High school in Chicago, yesterday, and delivered remarks that some have taken as a suggestion that the First Lady has officially entered the fight:

At a time of roiling debate over the issues of race and opportunity, punctuated by the events of Ferguson, Mo.; Staten Island; and Baltimore, the nation’s first African-American first lady has added her voice. It is not a new message for her, but one that has taken on special resonance and one delivered with bracing candor in recent speeches. Along the way, Mrs. Obama has opened a window into her own life, not just in Chicago but also in the White House.

By her telling, even living at the world’s most prominent address has not erased the sting of racial misunderstanding. In recent weeks, Mrs. Obama has talked of “insults and slights” directed at her husband and caricatures that have pained her. It all “used to really get to me,” she said, adding that she “had a lot of sleepless nights” until learning to ignore it. But she said she realized that she and her husband had a responsibility to rewrite the narrative for African-Americans.

“That’s a burden that President Obama and I proudly carry every single day in the White House,” she told the graduating seniors of King College Prep High School on Tuesday, “because we know that everything we do and say can either confirm the myths about folks like us―or it can change those myths.”

(Baker)

Some of us might be pessimistic. After all, what signs have we that President Obama and the First Lady have changed any perceptions about dark skin? Indeed, if we measure by the headlines, we might suggest they have somehow managed to exacerbate race relations.

Then again, that would be a misperception, and this is the important part.

We are living through a tumultuous period in which several traditional bigotries are officially falling from grace. The Obamas have not, by their own actions, exacerbated race relations. Rather, the problem seems to be a combination of factors, many of which sound like traditional gripes. The racists themselves exploded when Mr. Obama was elected; the One-Drop Rule was even called into question in order to deny that the United States of America had elected a black president. Journalists, having relinquished their Fourth Estate role as guardians of truth, equivocate in order to play up every issue as similar to any other. It seems an easy enough question to ask, despite the complexity of the answer: Really? We’re calling off the One-Drop Rule? And this is the reason why? So we don’t have to acknowledge that President Obama is the first black President of the United States?

That question was left to the commentators and pundits; in other words, the vital question was not fit for reportage, but only those sectors that we dismiss as having vested political interest. The result is that the obvious question is regarded as unreliable and inappropriate. That is to say, pointing out the fact that racists had flipped the One Drop Rule in order to further their racism was, apparently, unfair and unnecessarily partisan.

This is the state of equivocation in the American press: It doesn’t matter what the newsworthy say; the only job of the press is to tell you they said it. Oh, and also pretend that it is important. What’s that? Context? History? Facts? No, that’s not their job.

Steve Benen of msnbc noted the First Lady’s remarks, calling them “a welcome addition to the national conversation”, and while Mrs. Obama’s voice is vital in these issues at this time, we might also note that this is hardly her debut on the scene. As Peter Baker explains for the New York Times:

She uses her own story to try to inspire young men and women, especially African-Americans, as she did last month in another commencement address, at Tuskegee University, the historically black college where she described her searing introduction to the national stage.

“As potentially the first African-American first lady, I was also the focus of another set of questions and speculations, conversations sometimes rooted in the fears and misperceptions of others,” she said. “Was I too loud or too angry or too emasculating? Or was I too soft, too much of a mom, not enough of a career woman?”

Perhaps Mr. Benen’s overstatement of Ms. Obama’s words is instructive: She’s here. She’s been on the scene. Maybe nobody noticed because there hasn’t been much of a counterpoint, yet, and, you know, without that counterpoint there is no story. So even if the counterpoint is to tell a nigger bitch to shut up, the rest of us will be expected to accept that’s really how the issue is defined, because the reporters’ only job is to tell us who said what. Context, in journalism, is nothing. Market appeal becomes the only truth.

The voice of the First Lady is not a recent “addition to the national conversation”. But maybe this time a Republican will say something stupid, and the press will give that person all the credibility in the world, and then the rest of us can make a big deal of it.

This is really annoying. And dangerous. And stupid.

Michelle Obama has been here the whole time; this isn’t her debut.

____________________

Image note: Michelle Obama addresses the graduating class at King College Prep High School in Chicago on Tuesday, 10 June 2015. (Photo: Christian K Lee/Associated Press)

Baker, Peter. “For Michelle Obama, Talking About Race and Achievement, and Making It Personal”. The New York Times. 10 June 2015.

Benen, Steve. “Wednesday’s Mini-Report, 6.10.15”. msnbc. 10 June 2015.

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