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Friend of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright
Author of 'White Like Me: Reflections on Race From a Privileged Son'
Much has been said about the role that racism may play in the outcome of the 2008 Presidential election.
But what has been largely ignored is the way that media pundits, by virtue of the language they use, the questions they ask, and the way they frame issues, often reinforce racial division, and make it harder for us to examine race issues honestly.
So consider the way the media has been pushing the question, "Can Obama win working class voters?" Or, "Why is Obama having trouble connecting with working class voters?" Both questions ignore that Obama doesn't have a working class problem—large percentages of the black folks who are turning out to support him at rates of 90% are indeed working class—but rather, a white working class problem.
By implicitly equating "working class" with white, the media reinforces the notion of "hard-working," average (i.e. normal) folks as white. This then leaves blacks to be viewed either as the decidedly non-working and dreaded "underclass," or the elitist types that Hillary Clinton wants people to envision when they think of Senator Obama. Either of these images can reinforce racism, either by stoking white fear of the former or resentment toward the latter.
Or consider the way the media has responded to the Jeremiah Wright controversy.
Although much attention has been paid to black anger in the wake of Rev. Wright's largely-taken-out-of-context comments, and although some have tried to explain the place of such righteous indignation within the black church and community, the framing of the issue has reinforced the white perspective as normal, and thus, valid. So we are asked to wonder, "Why are some black people so angry?" rather than, "Why are some white people so complacent?" about racial injustice.
White complacency is seen as normal, while black anger is taken as the pathology to be understood, ultimately making them the problem. Their perspectives are the ones that are strange and in need of explanation, but ours (if we're white) are perfectly fine and need not be explained or defended to anyone. Such a normalizing of the white perspective only makes it more likely that whites will be hostile to those who think and view the world differently.
Of course, it's not only this election where the media has normalized whiteness, or made it altogether invisible, so that its consequences can't even be seen, let alone understood.
Consider the 2004 Presidential race, after which most every talking head noted that President Bush had won the "evangelical vote," and claimed that the nation was divided between "blue states" and "red states."
In the first instance, commentators failed to notice that the President most certainly did not win the black evangelical vote, but only the white evangelical vote. Black evangelicals voted against him by at least four to one. Saying that "evangelicals" supported the President, as the media did, marginalized Christians of color, whose sense of religious duty compelled them to vote differently from their white brothers and sisters. Why? Who knows? No one thought to ask.
As for blue states and red states, the notion of a geographic divide in this country is largely mythical. Most whites in the blue states—including New York, California, Illinois, Michigan and Maryland—either voted for Bush, or split 50-50 between Bush and Kerry. Meanwhile, in the red states, people of color voted overwhelmingly against the President. In other words, the real divide was racial, not regional.
By ignoring this truth, the media ducked the hard questions about why whites and folks of color often view our country so differently, and come to such different conclusions about what would be best for the nation politically.
But it is this kind of question we need to confront in order to have a truly productive conversation about race in America. That our respective racial identities often shape the way we view our national past, present and desired future—and therefore, often cause tension because we can't fathom where "the other guy" is coming from—is the truth that won't go away.
Only if media helps to uncover that reality, and encourage a real discussion about what it means, for all of us, will we likely make progress on the road to racial equity.
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