Here’s the public debate to which we’re normally treated when a racial statement with problematic undertones (or overtones) hits the news: “Paula Deen wants a slavery-themed event. Some say that’s racist. Some say it’s not. Some say to forgive her. How ’bout that n-word? Bad or not so bad?”
When someone from whom we don’t expect much is at the center of a debate, we cover biases and blame, boycotts and black friends. Maybe we unceremoniously place another checkmark in the “Yes, racism still exists” column, in case anyone is keeping score. Because the nature of the wrong is so obvious, no one feels moved to do the work of explaining why.
But when President Obama — who, we assume, has good intentions and an informed perspective, as well as a deep understanding of the black experience in America (not to mention the attention of the nation) — falls short, it’s a different story. As Politics 365’s Lauren Burke put it in her reaction to the speech, “That’s the exact same language clowns like Bill O’Reilly use to keep the welfare-queen theme of their southern strategy alive. But I don’t care what O’Reilly is doing, I’m sitting here trying to figure out what President Obama is doing.”
When we hear something so unsettling from the leader of the free world, there’s no room for dismissiveness and no room for mocking. In the case of the March on Washington speech in particular, the response was immediate, emphatic and detailed:
* Burke pointed out in her piece, “It’s hard to imagine a similar paragraph directed at any other group of Americans in tone or substance — let alone one hit by 400 years of injustice.”
* The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, who called the version of President Obama revealed through the events “heartbreaking,” explained in great detail why he saw the remarks as “using a tank to bravely plow through an army of strawmen.”
* At the Daily Beast, Jamelle Bouie wrote a firm “No, Obama. Frustration with discrimination and brutality set off those riots, not some cultural problem. And both linger.”
* The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb highlighted the way the president’s “tendency to chide black America in public appears all the more cynical when compared with his refusal to point to his own responsibilities to that community as Commander-in-Chief.”
* Cobb and historian Imani Perry talked to The Root in detail about the insidious historical inaccuracies embodied by and promoted by the remarks.
* An analysis of whether Obama singles out African Americans for criticism also got a national television audience on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry show.
And I can guarantee that no one was planning to talk publicly about these things until Obama went there — again. No one was going to dig into these widely and lazily held assumptions about black blame. If the highest-profile American speech hadn’t put those ideas on the table for discussion, they would have remained dormant and unchallenged in the psyches of countless Americans.
But thanks to the speech, why “progress stalled” after the civil rights movement was placed solidly on the table for discussion. It was debated earnestly on the public record in a way that just doesn’t happen when we dismiss the offending speaker as a dead-wrong racist jerk. There’s a greater sense of urgency, more detail, more care and, I would argue, more progress.
Maybe, when it comes to race in America, President Obama’s role isn’t going to be that of the nation’s professor after all. Instead of teaching, it’s looking more and more as if his role might be to force us to teach ourselves. When that happens and a chorus of voices gives him his tough love right back — plus tough analysis, tough context and tough history — I think we all win.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root’s staff writer and White House correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.