Moving beyond Obama and race

He's not the kind of leader to generalize about a "typical white person," so here's hoping he gets back to his message soon

By Joan Walsh
Published March 23, 2008 2:55AM (EDT)

Barack Obama sounded tired when he described his grandmother as a "typical white person" who feared those who are different from her in a radio interview Thursday. He was elaborating on the historic speech on race he gave Tuesday. Obama hasn't gotten his line on his white grandmother quite right yet. He compared her to Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose extremist statements (admittedly a minority of his prodigous pastoral output) are part of his public persona, while Obama's grandmother's supposed transgressions were private (and in Obama's books, occasioned by her harassment by an aggressive panhandler who happened to be African American. But maybe there were more.)

Whatever the truth, what Obama experienced with his grandmother was no doubt painful as he reckoned with his mixed-race upbringing, as well as the fact of an absent Kenyan father and an often absent Kansan mother, who were often replaced by two loving but imperfect aging white grandparents.

I've gotten a ton of criticism in letters for questioning Obama's use of his grandmother in his landmark race speech, and it's all made me think twice. Many more times than twice, actually. Yet I hold to my view that Obama's speech, and its aftermath, could well be politically damaging despite rave reviews, and that his use of his grandmother is part of the problem. I would ask my critics' indulgence, hoping they'll join the conversation on race Obama correctly says we need, and put aside their own preconceptions while I explain my reaction.

Here's my Current video this week, making a start. Text, and more thinking, follows below.

I think Obama simply misspoke, out of campaign exhaustion, when he called his grandmother "a typical white person" who, he said, harbored no "racial animosity," but "if she sees somebody on the street that she doesn't know. . .there's a reaction in her that doesn't go away and it comes out in the wrong way." He knows his grandmother wasn't a typical white person: In the 1950s, she welcomed her black son-in-law into the family; in the 60s and 70s, she helped raise her half-black grandson. As a white person, I'd love to argue that was typical white behavior, but we all know that, Lord, it was far from it.

On the other hand, Obama's getting criticism for implying that "typical white behavior," even today, is racial fear and distance. You know, it may well be. I don't think so, but it's possible. The problem is, the Barack Obama who won Iowa, who's beaten Hillary Clinton in hugely white states like Wyoming and Idaho, isn't someone who talks in stereotypes about your "typical white person." This probably shouldn't, and likely won't, hurt him with the Democratic base, but it probably will with the Independents and Republicans who've given him his primary season leap over Hillary Clinton.

So what next? As someone who's worked for many years to close the racial divide, I have to hope Obama moves past this. But I think big national conversations about race, if we choose to have them, are probably going to be more painful than we'd like, so it's possible he won't. It will continue to play out, or sputter out, in the weeks to come.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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2008 Elections