Racist Shorthand in the U.S.

An extraordinary piece of chicanery by Kelefa Sanneh entitled “Discriminating Tastes” heads off  the Talk of the Town section in the current (August 10 & 17) issue of The New Yorker. The subject is the alleged “reverse racism” or “anti-white” bias of President Obama, as kicked off by his controversial offhand remark last month that a policeman who arrested a man in his own home “acted stupidly”. This was later described by Fox News‘s terminally stupid Glenn Beck as a revealing exposure of Obama’s “deep-seated hatred for white people.”

Not even once in this article does Sanneh bother to mention or even acknowledge the fact that Beck and so many other commentators are so eager to suppress and/or obfuscate — that Obama is half-white. As far as this article (and, it would appear, an alarming amount of other American punditry) is concerned, Obama is simply and unambiguously (and irrevocably) “a black President,” not someone who was born to a white mother and a black father. So in other words, according to this peculiar argument, Obama harbors a “deep-seated hatred” not only for his late mother but for half of himself — although this latter portion of the equation is almost never brought up. Existentially speaking, it would appear, if one follows such arguments closely, that Obama being half-black actually means that he’s 150% black and -50% white. And please note that he’s the one being accused of racism.

I have no idea what race Kelefa Sanneh belongs to, but I should note that he makes a very valid point in distinguishing between systematic and personal forms of racism. I wonder which kind he (or this magazine) is exposing. [8/6/09]

Postscript, 8/7/09: A reader of this post, Gareth McFeely, has correctly and tactfully pointed out to me, “the article does discuss Obama’s comments on his white grandmother, which to me at least plants the idea that he has white heritage. For what it’s worth, Sanneh is, like Obama, the child of a black father and a white mother, both of whom were born in Africa and are now working at Yale.” I’m sorry I neglected to spot McFeely’s first point. But Sanneh does persist in following the mainstream distortion and oversimplification of labeling Obama “a black President,” even in his last sentence. One can certainly understand the reason for this: as Obama once reportedly remarked to Charlie Rose, if he had trouble hailing a cab outside the TV studio, this wouldn’t be because he was half-white. But there are still many reasons to regret that Sanneh — and so many others — choose essentially to replicate, buy into, and thus perpetuate the standard misrepresentation.

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