January 30, 2010

He Forgot the President was Black

President Obama's State of the Union Address on Wednesday, January 27th was nothing short of rhetorical genius.  When President Obama speaks, he has the ear of the entire global community.

Chris Matthews of NBC News shared his thoughts with the world via live commentary immediately following the Address.  What he said has sparked a bit of controversy:
"I was trying to think about who he was tonight. It's interesting: he is post-racial, by all appearances. I forgot he was black tonight for an hour. You know, he's gone a long way to become a leader of this country, and passed so much history, in just a year or two. I mean, it's something we don't even think about. I was watching, I said, wait a minute, he's an African-American guy in front of a bunch of other white people. And here he is president of the United States and we've completely forgotten that tonight — completely forgotten it. I think it was in the scope of his discussion. It was so broad-ranging, so in tune with so many problems, of aspects, and aspects of American life that you don't think in terms of the old tribalism, the old ethnicity. It was astounding in that regard. A very subtle fact. It's so hard to talk about. Maybe I shouldn't talk about it, but I am. I thought it was profound that way."

I'm certain any reasonably intelligent person, Black or white, knows what Matthews was trying to say.  He believes that the election of President Obama and the content and quality of the man, Barack Obama, has transcended race, has catapulted the U.S. into a "post-racial" era.  I do not take issue with Matthews' sentiments.  I watched the video feed of his commentary, and he appeared genuinely proud of President Obama and genuinely proud of American society for choosing such a man as its Chief Executive.  However, I argue that the election of Barack Obama as the first African American president of the United States is not a transcendence of race, but rather a transgression of race.  I further assert that the 2008 Presidential election has not nor could not undo 250 years of white racism.

Many Academics fervently differentiate the notion of "transcending" race and the notion of "transgressing" race.  To transcend a thing is to go beyond its range or "limits".  To "transgress" a thing is to go beyond its "boundaries".  It may be a matter of semantics, but we "literary" types take semantics quite seriously.  When Chris Matthews said that Mr. Obama is "post-racial by all appearances", and that he "forgot that he was black," he conflated Obama's blackness with the notion of race itself, implying that blackness is something one needs to transcend and make invisible.  It is not blackness that limits, rather the notion of race that limits.  Blackness, or Africanness, predates the socially constructed concept of race.  In other words, black people who love being black don't want others to "forget that they are black."  They do not want whites to "see past" their blackness as if it were some great albatross or a gigantic scarlet letter on their chests.  They do not want to be invisible, rather they want their blackness to be a part of the reason they are loved.  After all, black people aren't expected to "forget that white people are white," nor given accolades for doing so.  Therefore, Barack Obama has not transcended race.  He has transgressed race, for he has gone beyond its boundaries.  Furthermore, as long as President Obama continues to receive unprecedented numbers of racialized death threats, and has the most Secret Service protection of any President in history, we cannot yet stake any claim to a post-racial America.