April 29th, 2008
02:13 PM ET

Race in the Race for the Presidency: How Media Pundits Gloss Over Race and Feed Racism

[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/04/29/art.obamaspeaking2.jpg ]

Tim Wise
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.

soundoff (204 Responses)
  1. Silsteen Mills

    Good evening Anderson!

    Mr. Wise, Thank you for the excellent comments. I agree completey with everything you've said.

    Those who continue to ask why Mr. Obama remained a member of the Trinity Church of Christ just don't get it. They continue to ask why he sat there for twenty years and listened to that. One person does not make a Church. Mr. Wright was not the Church. The people make up the Church. Why would Mr. Obama leave his Christain family of over eight thousand members. The media and politcal analyst speak as if Mr. Wright had breakfast, lunch and dinner with him in his home.

    Mr. Wright is only a human, not God!

    Did millions of Catholics leave the Catholic Church in the wake of their priest's sexual molestation of thousands of children over many years.
    They may argue that only Mr. Obama is running for president. My response is: Remember Jenifer Flowers, Paula Jones and Whitewater.... for Bill Clinton?

    April 29, 2008 at 10:15 pm |
  2. Jan D

    Why did it take 20yrs for Obama to condemn the preachings of Rev. Wright?!

    April 29, 2008 at 10:09 pm |
  3. Reasonable thinker

    Some of these comments are so intelligent and decent that I find myself printing them out to share with my students tomorrow. Keep them coming.

    April 29, 2008 at 10:04 pm |
  4. longstreetom

    nobo dy is calling for Hillary to leave the race now. when Jeremeiah responds tomorrow, Obama campaign collapses under weight of contradictions and no "speech" will save him.

    April 29, 2008 at 10:04 pm |
  5. JC

    This was truly a great article. I think you on point with everything you said.

    April 29, 2008 at 10:04 pm |
  6. Debra

    It saddens me to see the extent some will go to in order to devide a man and his pastor. I love Obama and I feel that Rev. Wright is a good and very wise man. I know that Obama is a smart man, I hope there will be no success in this evil. They say you reap what you sow. I pray that all those that are behind this evil will suffer instead. This just goes to show how vicious Hillary and Bill are. Aren't we moving out of a vicious relationship with a president in this country who didn't give a damn about anyone but himself? Why are we even talking about Rev. Wright? He's not running for president. Why are we not talking about the gas prices, mortgage rates or some of the many, many other problems created during Bush term? I just know that George Bush is enjoying this distraction from the poor job that he did for nearly eight years. That's right...put it on Obama.

    April 29, 2008 at 10:02 pm |
  7. Marina

    I am so sick and tired of the media and how they continue to spin this issue with Reverend Wright. Bill Clinton aired his dirty laundry for the world to see, and now his wife and daughter says that it is personal. We did not know Reverend Wright before Obama ran for president. Why is national news for the Clintons so off limit now and they get the opportunity to not ever comment. I agree with the very first blogger that America remains a racist country. The media as well as the Clintons and John McCain is showing the world what minorities have been facing for decades in this country. It is sad that at the highest level of government, this country the most powerful in the world is showing the world the hatred that exist among blacks and whites. Like the first blogger you may not post this comment either. I hope you do and if you don't what gets polled is not a true indication of how many in this country feels. We are just fed up about the turmoil that Obama contiues to endure at the hands of you people in the media. I am quite sure that if you go back twenty years in the Clintons, and McCains background you would find much worse, but you dare not air such findings. Shame on you guys. I guess the media wants him to get angry so that they can say that is how all blacks act. WE ARE AWARE OF THE GAME BEING PLAYED NO MORE NOT NOW NOT EVER.

    April 29, 2008 at 9:45 pm |
  8. sandra

    if i see one more show on CNN in defense of Barack Obama i will no longer view CNN as a unbias up to the minute Election Central show...all of your correspondents and analysts are in the majority for Obama..how can i make a choice with your show only going one way...can your show become unbias...anytime soon or just name your shows CNN for Obama...

    April 29, 2008 at 9:44 pm |
  9. Tom Wyckoff


    The problem is racism. It is real. It is huge. And it will decide this election. My own mother voted for Barack in the primary, but only because she thought Hillary would be a weaker candidate against her Republican favorite, who, mercifully, did not make the cut.

    We have made great strides in this country against racism, but not enough, I fear, to propel Barack Obama, who is probably the smartest and most inspirational leader to risk a run for the presidency in 3 generations, a chance to serve. Even among Democrats, there are 40 or 45% of us who are too bound bythe racism of our fathers and mothers to break free.

    Perhaps after I am dead (another 20 or 30 years, actuarilaly, we will finally overcome.

    Tom Wyckoff
    White in Wheaton, Illinois

    April 29, 2008 at 9:39 pm |
  10. TexasVet

    Very well stated, I couldn't have said it better myself.

    April 29, 2008 at 9:34 pm |
  11. Karen Barnaby

    Isn't it obvious that it is an attempt to sabotage the strides made by a credible candidate (shades of Al Gore) This is an illustration of a sad state of affairs...

    April 29, 2008 at 8:07 pm |
  12. Michael

    There are a lot of good points that are made but what is missed is how plain hurtful and racist are so many of the comments of Wright and his supporters against America and Jews in particular.

    April 29, 2008 at 8:06 pm |
  13. mark deer park tx

    So let me see if i have this right. Obama supporters claim its not fair to hold Barak Obama responsible for something said by one of his supporters, namely Rev. Wright. They dont seem to have the same fair-minded ideas when it comes to something said by one of Hillary's supporters, namely Bill Clinton. I see two faced duplicity runs deep in the ranks of Obama supporters. As a white male blue collar voter I think the DNC better wake up and smell the coffee, Obama is done and is unelectable. I am a lifelong democratic voter and have never cast a vote for a republican, if the DNC chooses to run Obama that will change. All of my white male blue collar friends feel the same way. I would no more vote for Barak Obama for attending that church than i would vote for a David Duke for hanging around with who he hung around with. I keep hearing the Wright apologists claim that i cannot judge the man by just a few sound bites. Oh really? The Ku-klux-klan had bake sales for orphans and helped out widows but i damn sure can judge them for the other things they did. Maybe Obama supporters want to give the Nazis credit for making the trains run on time and forget all of that other nasty business. We judge people on the evil that they do and attending such a hateful church is evil, pure and simple.

    April 29, 2008 at 7:52 pm |
  14. kaya.independent.

    Wow. This article is so true. I even found out some things I dind't know. Most of the media sickens me. As this article proves, they consider one race superior to all others. Things haven't changed. All this stuff about Rev. Wright is ridiculous and shouldn't be an issue. Especially since Barack has done his best to tell everyone these aren't his views and that Wright doesn't speak for him or his campaign. What more do people want from him? We need to get back to the issues that actually affect the American people. This is ridiculous. And unfortunately all this coverage of a Reverend who is NOT running for president is hurting the person who is running. Really sad.

    April 29, 2008 at 7:51 pm |
  15. Tom Cape Cod

    Funny how he's just outraged now. This guys has been saying off the wall stuff for years and only NOW is Obama outraged. The guys a joke.

    April 29, 2008 at 7:44 pm |
  16. Spider Mike

    Rev. Wright is a racist clown and Barry Obama is the court jester. Obama is fatally flawed as a closet black militant and it is too late to pretend otherwise now. Obama should withdraw from the race and try to rehabilitate his image.

    April 29, 2008 at 7:42 pm |
  17. George Austin

    I am saddened by the ever-increasing prospect that the presidential bid by Senator Obama is dead in the water. That his run for the presidency was torpedoed by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, makes it all the more difficult to accept.

    Senator Obama was such an inspiration for young people from all walks of life. Black nationalists like Reverend Wright are such an interesting contrast. When the smoke clears and we look back at this whole episode we can lay Obama's failed bid for president at the feet of those that would rather hold on to the hurtful past than embrace a hopeful future.

    April 29, 2008 at 7:37 pm |
  18. Y

    Wonderful observation. In the past two months I�ve seen the power of the media to create something out of nothing and destroy a 20-year relationship between a man and his pastor. Only a black man would be asked to vet his pastor�s sermons in order to be President. Blacks have always been asked to prove who they are as if they were not born here, when at one point there were more blacks slaves in America than white colonists, during the initial building of the country.

    April 29, 2008 at 7:35 pm |
  19. Anthony

    Hello, I'm a brown brother who was lost, but now I'm found. I hope if Mr. Obama becomes president he will ask Gods, and Rev. Write's forgiveness. And, host a real town meeting with many different brother, and sisters possible. Lets put racism to bed, once and for all.

    April 29, 2008 at 7:34 pm |
  20. charliesix

    What a win-win obama and jeremiah show. The pastor makes outlandish remarks to prepare the way for his book as well as give obama the pretext to show his disgusts over the remarks.

    These two have the chutzpah to insult our intelligence.

    April 29, 2008 at 7:30 pm |
  21. roman

    The bottom line is, religion is to unite people of different look, life,and social status to salute to love, peace, and forgiveness. But all I see Mr. Wright doing is to spread hatred, division, and resentment. Religion fanatic is the Devil itself

    April 29, 2008 at 7:25 pm |
  22. Hank

    The problem with Rev. Wright isn't that he's black. It's that he's mentally unstable. He's not running for office. A much saner, more intelligent and less angry man is, and he'll make a great leader!

    April 29, 2008 at 7:22 pm |
  23. James

    wow, really good article, nice points and concerns raised...thanks

    April 29, 2008 at 7:21 pm |
  24. Black in Redwood City

    Unfortunately, Wright is also being used by Clinton via Barbara REynolds. It's the same old game of slavery, pit Blacks against one another. If they kill each other, we don't have to kill them.

    April 29, 2008 at 7:19 pm |
  25. Norma

    I wonder why the media and the pundits continue to blame Obama for Wrights words and actions? Falwell, Robertson, Baker, Swaggart, and even Graham, all pastors and preachers, have at one time or other said and done things that their congregations or followers disagreed with.

    They stayed in their churches and continued to support their churches.

    The catholic church with all its sex scandals continues to receive gifts from their parishioners even though their money has been used to pay settlements. The parishioners continue to attend their churches. They do this because of their faith and beliefs and not because of their pastors.

    April 29, 2008 at 7:18 pm |
  26. Raven

    The question is, Could Obama have listened to this man spouting
    such vitrol fro twenty years and none of it have rubbed off on him?

    If if he didn't agree with Wright for those 20 years, why did he stay
    in that church?

    April 29, 2008 at 7:18 pm |
  27. Rich W

    I agree with Pat Nelson. I thought the speech Wright gave at the NAACP convention was thought-provoking, funny, and truthful without being hateful. Then Wright fuels the fire with his remarks about HIV and Farakhan at the Press Club, thus making people forget his powerful NAACP speech. I think Wright is enjoying his time in the limelight a little too much.

    April 29, 2008 at 7:18 pm |
  28. Matt

    I'd agree but lets be honest sexism is horrible in this country. In New Hampshire a man stood up and shouted to Hillary Clinton "Iron my shirt", whats shocking about this is it hardly got any coverage. If someone said a racial remark it would be all over the news which should but at the same time sexism is more apparant in this campaign than racism.

    April 29, 2008 at 7:18 pm |
  29. An American

    Obama, Obama, Obama, we now know who your friends REALLY are and what they stand for. Know we KNOW who you REALLY are. It was a nice run. But, a racist president is NOT what this country needs. You've known this racist for 20 years. LOL and now all of a sudden, he becomes a ranting racist. I guess you were sleeping through his sermones, for 20 years. The Land of Lincoln must be proud..

    April 29, 2008 at 7:17 pm |
  30. Black in Redwood City

    Tell us (black america) something we don't know. We already know this. It's white america that is clueless. Except, of course, you Tim and a few others. At least you are honest about it, but you aren't getting anytime on national television, are you? They aren't breaking down your door with an invitation to speak.

    April 29, 2008 at 7:17 pm |
  31. Rebecca Vanderbilt

    Even worse that racist, America is sexist.

    The media and the Obama campaign have continuously pushed out the most sexist remarks against Hillary. Yet, the Obama and the media dared to claimed holy as thou.

    If the media used the same sexist-style remarks about race on Obama, there would be an outrage and the NAACP would cry foul. Yet it's completely okay to denegrate a woman!

    April 29, 2008 at 7:15 pm |
  32. Scott

    The American dream is based on the principal that our country is free of discrimination and full of prosperity. Liberty is the sole reason our society has experianced such progress. Lets not allow the words of the few to outweight the words of the many. America is on the verge of something great. Its our time to reach prosperity again, all we need now is the strenght to lose sight of the past, and to venture into the unknown. Obama is the only leader that can speak to both white and black americans, and help forged this country into its new found prosperity.

    April 29, 2008 at 7:15 pm |
  33. annie

    This was a good article. IMO

    April 29, 2008 at 7:09 pm |
  34. Tony

    This article completely misses the point: Barry Obama was not just a member of Wright's congregation for many years, he was married by Wright, his children were baptized by Wright, he named his book after one of Wright's sermons. If he didn't know what Wright was all about for all those years as he claims then Obama is totally clueless. But in reality Obama is fudging the truth or outright lieing. Obama's association with this guy matters because he was so closely associated with him. Words matter as Obama says over and over. Wright is completely relevant to this campaign. Wright is even MORE relevant because many americans, including blacks, are now abandoning Obama because of this association. so every time CNN claims it doesn't matter they are completely wrong. Obama should do the right thing and withdraw from the race.

    April 29, 2008 at 6:47 pm |
  35. David Hewitt

    I continue to feel troubled by the slant that CNN and other news media have taken regarding race and the Obama campaign. For instance, the Governor of Pennsylvania, and admitted Hillary supporter, publicly announced that 18% of the residents of his state are so racist that they won't vote for Obama because of his race. Then, after losing by only 10%, CNN and other news media feast on the story that he can't close the deal with white working class males. Wait a minute! A simple statistical analysis appears to show that if the Governor actually knew anything about his population then Obama did an incredible job of cutting the devout racist numbers in half or gained enough cross-over or other votes to close that gap.

    Now, it appears to me that the Governor of Pennsylvania has no problem with proclaiming to the world that almost one in five (20%) of his population are avowed racists (I will no longer purchase anything I know to be from the state of Pennsylvanis either!) which is a story unto itself, but the fact that CNN and others seemed to miss the point that Obama overcame quite a bit of that is amazing.

    It is a sad state of affairs when the news deliberately focuses on the negative racism but fails to show that the American people can overcome the racist element within their population. I only hope the rest of the world can figure out that this isn't 1956 in Selma, and that we have made some progress in this country.

    CNN and the rest get an F in journalism. Sounds like Hillary's folks are getting all of the racist press they hoped for and you morons are going along with the program.

    April 29, 2008 at 6:45 pm |
  36. michael in california

    I think you (Tim) should look at what you're (the Obama campaign) are feeding the media and the people. This is becoming the election of fictitiously plausible ideas. You want me to believe that Rev. Wright wasn't vetted in 21st Century American politics? Come on! Wright was a problem, they set up this divide, and the media is buying it. Why aren't CNN reporters examining the "Divorce" speech closer? Because you're (Tim) feeding them bs and they don't want to question the "I didn't vet my pastor" lies. This divide was perfectly scripted to put Barrack opposite Write. I couldn't figure out why Write went so over-the-top at the National Press Club – now it's clear, to give Obama a plausible divide from him. All for show. Again, does anyone believe Wright was ignored by the political strategists – Axelrod would have to be an idiot.

    At best, Barrack has shown poor judgment and no leadership skills – the public actually had to lead him to the understanding of who his pastor is. Wow!

    At worst, this is all a shame, and Barrack is lying through his teeth about the divide.

    April 29, 2008 at 6:41 pm |
  37. Ken

    WE ARE ALL RACISTS! Get over it!

    I'm white. If we had over 200 years of black presidents and this was the first year we had a viable white president, I'd vote for the white guy in a heartbeat.

    Blacks are voting for Obama, because we've had over 200 years of white presidents. The icing on the cake is that Obama is a great candidate. Blacks should proudly vote for Obama. If blacks vote only based on skin color, then I completely respect your position.

    But blacks should not automatically assume all whites are racists if we're not as consumed by Obama.

    April 29, 2008 at 6:36 pm |
  38. Jessica

    Thank you for your article Mr. Wise. The media is making a mockery of Rev. Wright and Senator Obama is only buying into this negative view by continuing to condemn Rev. Wright. In his quest to win over the white "working class," Senator Obama will alienate the black voters that have been supporting him all along.

    April 29, 2008 at 6:26 pm |
  39. kim

    CNN should not give so much to this one topic "Rev. Wright" – by doing this, you are giving too much power to him. Rev. Wright is acting like a puppet for a distructive voice. The voice is against the direction this country needs to go in. As a country the people need to unite in a direction that's good for the people. (not the politicians, and clergy). It's about the people in this country! We the people.....

    April 29, 2008 at 5:59 pm |
  40. Frances

    Come on America... can you not see what Wright is doing. If we turn our backs on Barack Obama, then Rev. Wright wins. And I refuse to let him win. Don't be fair weathered (when things are great we are for some one when things don't look so good or the press is spinning all over the place we turn our backs? We are smarter people than that. Hillary has "tons" of baggage and so does McCain, so does that make it right to turn our back on Barack he is in the eye of a storm that Rev. Wright is knowingly putting him in. Where is our back bone and our fight for change. Wipe your eyes and brush away the smoke screen.

    April 29, 2008 at 5:55 pm |
  41. Vicki

    Why should Obama be responsible for someone else's comments? It's called freedom of speech. He does not have any control over what someone says. Is Hilary Clinton the Senator of New York? What will she do to keep the peace between the outraged African American community and the police that was NOT GUILTY for firing 50 shots that killed a man. A life was taken. America is just trying to find something to keep a African American from being in office. I know there will not be a respond as usual.

    April 29, 2008 at 5:41 pm |
  42. John Lefkowitz

    Isn't interesting that Barack Obama didn't have any issues with the Rev Wright until now? Besides dropping poll numbers, what changed? I am sure that Barak's children miss Uncle Jeremiah........

    April 29, 2008 at 5:08 pm |
  43. Pat Nelson

    I felt the speech given at the NAACP Convention was very good. It truly gave new insight to the fact that people are being different, but not deficient. However, the press conference was a bit dicey, in both the questions asked and the answers given.

    April 29, 2008 at 5:04 pm |
  44. Gary

    When it was being said about whites and the usa it's how they talk in a black church. When it was about Obama it is rant.

    April 29, 2008 at 5:04 pm |
  45. Luis Martinez

    This guy is a clown looking for his 15 minutes. He obviously got more than that, but he is not satisfied. I have attended many churches and listened to many preachers in my life. Never seen anybody so angry, sarcastic and hungry for attention preaching in the name of God.

    It's got to be a new religion!

    April 29, 2008 at 5:00 pm |
  46. Sallu

    I think its very unfair on CNN's part to air Wright's speech, i think they teamed up with Hillary to Denounce a black man to stop him from getting nomination.

    April 29, 2008 at 4:55 pm |
  47. ML

    I find it odd that white America is so quick to jump on The Rev. while their Catholic Priests are fondling little boys. They are still attending that church and giving money willingly. What's up with that? Get your own house in order before you start putting down someone elses.

    April 29, 2008 at 4:52 pm |
  48. Eleanor B

    His outrageous behavior is a bad case of “generational resentment” and he is spinning out of control. Ask any parent who feels that their kid just does not appreciate all that they have done for them. Obama is benefiting from civil rights advancements that were not available to Wright, even though Wright was a foot soldier in the movement. Consciously, or unconsciously, he is trying to sabotage Obama. I hope the Rev. comes to his senses.

    April 29, 2008 at 4:41 pm |
  49. at

    I think there should be a debate between Rev. Wright and Pat Buchanan. This could be the beginning of a serious discussion about race relations in America. Right now, we're only becoming more divisive.

    April 29, 2008 at 4:41 pm |
  50. Carol

    Watching this unfold, it is apparent to me the reason, Obama tread very lightly on Wright in the Philadelphia speech was that Obama realized that any attack of any sort would unlease the anger in this man. If Obama had not been such a rookie he would have left that church the day he decided to run for president. I seriously doubt that Obama has the spine to stand up for Americans and the judgement to call someone or a country when inappropriate actions ocurr.

    April 29, 2008 at 4:40 pm |
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