Home > Politics > Racist? Insensitive? Maybe not

Racist? Insensitive? Maybe not

What does it say about us and the people we elect to office that we don’t believe they could say anything out of conviction but only to court public opinion? That’s the sad state of affairs that Nathan McCall, a professor of African American studies at Emory University, describes in this past Sunday’s Outlook.

My post is going to write itself as all I have to do is quote his article. First, McCall reminds us of Bill Clinton’s 1992 remark about Sister Souljah’s racist statement (“If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?”). Clinton likened the hip hop singer’s baffling statement, in its extremism, to the views of white supremacist David Duke, not a stretch by any means. But for McCall, “When Clinton ran for president, he was desperate to woo white conservatives… By showing toughness against African Americans, he hoped to impress Reagan Democrats and other white conservatives.” Call me naïve but I would hope that Clinton would have a few ideas of his own and recognize blatant racism when he saw it. Never mind that the over-analysis (similar to the one I’m indulging in today) that followed immediately forced him to eat his words.

Next target for McCall, Obama’s recent address to the Congressional Black Caucus where he (rhetorically) said to his black audience “Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes…Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying…” This was not Obama’s most delicately worded message to a black electorate that often accuses him of showing less sensitivity to the situation of African Americans than to the country at large. Which may be true but after all he is the president of all Americans even if, in a glorious historical first, he is also black himself. But then the author continues “…there is certainly reason to believe that Obama has something to gain by sending white voters coded messages.”

Coded messages? My, but this sounds underhanded! And how would whoever heard this message know to decode it? I certainly wouldn’t but then I tend to take things at face value. So, Obama and his speechwriters intended to have “white voters … conclude that Obama was lecturing blacks to stop griping.” I hadn’t caught that he was “lecturing”–here we do have a coded message, one meant to hurl at him what the conservative right considers the supreme insult: being professorial. (Democrats found Bush simple-minded, Republicans and their Joe the Plumber mascot find Obama too smart—surely we should be able to find a satisfying middle ground, or does everything have to sharply fall on one side or the other?) And I hadn’t had to “conclude” anything, just trust my own ears that what I heard was meant to be heard, neither an academic lecture nor a coded message nor “racial calculation” but an advice to try harder as we all should instead of “griping” endlessly.

I may be simple-minded myself for thinking that even politicians can on occasion say something they mean and that comes from the heart, taking the risk of being misunderstood and offending part of their constituency or the vociferating guys on the other side. (Never mind that whatever anyone says nowadays is bound to offend someone.)

Before sounding off in the columns of national newspapers, we might do worse than to remember the words of Teddy Roosevelt, a remarkable man and possibly the most extraordinary president this country has known: “Here is the thing you must bear in mind. I do not represent public opinion: I represent the public. There is a wide difference between the two.” (as quoted in Edmund Morris’ Theodore Rex).

I would add that Clinton and Obama also represent themselves, two brilliant men whom we should allow to have opinions not solely directed at gathering votes.

  1. gharib
    October 5, 2011 at 4:49 pm

    I love your speeding arrows, I read them with great pleasure and it gives me arguments since most of the time I’m (Almost) in agreement with your comments.
    Bravo! And stop saying your maybe naïve or simple-minded nobody (except yourself…and maybe me!) Will believe that. Keep on!


    • October 5, 2011 at 6:00 pm

      Et tu dis ne pas parler l’anglais?


  2. Maryam yekta Steininger
    October 5, 2011 at 4:59 pm

    All of the politicians are trying to win public’s mind and influence their opinions ( brain washing ). Doing this ,they gain white and black votes. I am not a racist, but in truth? I am. And I don’t trust any politician even President Roosevelt. Their psyche, and ego is the question why do they want to win.


    • Maryam yekta Steininger
      October 5, 2011 at 5:02 pm

      It is OK


  3. October 5, 2011 at 5:06 pm

    Good article Saideh. I agree with your assessment


  4. Siamak Vossoughi
    October 5, 2011 at 5:13 pm

    Dear Ms. Pakravan:
    Nathan McCall’s book ‘Makes Me Wanna Holler’ gave me a much deeper understanding of the pervasiveness and methods of white racism against black people than I’d had. I don’t feel like it’s an understanding that we as Iranian-Americans come by naturally or effortlessly. So when he makes remarks about coded language (which has a long history in American racism), I don’t find them so easy to dismiss as you appear to. White Americans have long failed to do the one thing vis-a-vis black voices that it takes to dismantle racism: Listen. We as Iranian-Americans don’t have to follow the same path.

    Siamak Vossoughi


    • October 5, 2011 at 5:31 pm

      Hi Siamak,
      Thanks for the comment. As you kind of generalize the worldview of Iranian-Americans, I will too and respond that we, of Iranian origins, tend to see words behind words and codes behind those. We call it “kasseh zire nim kasseh.” We truly believe that not taking things at face value makes us appear smarter–which may explain the sorry state of our country. All I’m saying in this post is that sometimes, and sometimes only, even politicians may speak in all sincerity and call it as they see it.


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