Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The racial lens that distorts the media's perception of President Obama

This is part 2 to: The patriarchal lens that distorts the media's perception of President Obama.

We've all witnessed the racial backlash to the election of this country's first African American president. What I want to talk about is not the obvious racism of the teapublicans with their birther conspiracies about the Kenyan socialist. There's something more insidiously racial in how the mainstream press covers this President and the effect their analysis has on our conscious as well as unconscious biases.

So what I want to talk about is all the subtle (and not so subtle) ways the media portrays President Obama as incompetent. Right on cue comes pearl-clutcher-in-chief Peggy Noonan's latest column which she so aptly titles Incompetence. Of course all she's really got to work with is the botched roll-out of But boy, does she run with it. recent weeks I have begun to worry about the basic competency of the administration, its ability to perform the most fundamental duties of executive management...

It all looks so lax, so loosey-goosey. In the place of the energy and focus that would go into the running of things, the administering and managing of them, we have the preoccupation with spin, with how things look as opposed to how they are.
You'd be right if you suggested that it is pretty much Peggy Noonan's job to criticize and distort what a Democratic administration is doing. But why focus on the trope of incompetence? Its because that way of looking at a black man already has resonance with herself and her readers. As Jonathan Chait so eloquently wrote recently, our legacy is a racial system "in which the most unforgivable crime was for an African-American to presume himself an equal to — or, heaven forbid, better than — a white person." And so if you are a Republican wanting to discredit this administration among white people who have been programmed their whole lives to see black people as incompetent, the platform is ready-made for you to exploit.

Unfortunately, its not just the Peggy Noonan's of the world who peddle this meme. Those who aren't in the business of promoting Republicans often pick it up as well...just more subtly. Yesterday xpostfactoid pointed out one of the ways that happens with an article titled: If only Obama would say what he's never stopped saying. If only he would do what he's done. In it he chronicles how pundits (usually on the left side of the political spectrum) so often give President Obama "advice" about how to say/do things without ever really acknowledging his record. That's another way of dismissing the President's competence.

Perhaps the most insidious way the media reinforces this meme is by suggesting that President Obama is lucky whenever he has successes. This one runs through almost every achievement of his in the last 5+ years. You might remember that it all started when - in the most obviously racial example of all - Geraldine Ferraro suggested that Barack Obama was beating Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries because he was lucky enough to be black. Here are a few examples of how its played out since then:

Tim Dickinson on the Obamacare contraception controversy:
If this were a political mistake, Barack Obama seems impossibly lucky to have stumbled into it. Every repercussion is redounding to his favor.
Dana Milbank on the economy:
In politics, it’s better to be lucky than good, and Obama has come into an unexpectedly large quantity of luck. Five straight monthly drops in the unemployment rate have boosted consumer confidence and stock markets.
 Gary Younge on his opponents:
Barack Obama has often been lucky with his enemies...

Now, as he heads for reelection, he must be saying a prayer every day in thanks for Mitt Romney...

The principal beneficiary would be Obama. The president should be fighting for his life. Instead, he's living on his luck.
Kevin Drum on the Obama/Romney townhall debate:
He [Obama] let Romney dig himself into an ever deeper hole, and just smiled when Romney tried to get him to directly deny it. This turned out to be either lucky or smart, because it gave Candy Crowley a chance to fact check Romney and confirm that she was there and she heard Obama refer to Benghazi as an act of terror on the very next day.
 p.m. carpenter on Romney's choice of Paul Ryan:
The choice of Ryan would seem to confirm two perpetual truths about Gov. Romney and President Obama: the latter is the luckiest politician since Reagan, and the former is the worst presidential candidate since Dukakis.
 Megan McArdle on Syria (this one was repeated by an awful lot of pundits):
But if it does turn out “well,” this will be because the president was lucky, not brilliant.
And finally, Chris Cilizza simply opines on how President Obama is generally lucky:
In politics — as in life — it’s better to be lucky than good.

And, as the last week of the presidential campaign has made clear, President Obama is both — benefitting from a series of political advantageous moments that few could have predicted even a month ago.
Of course that list is not exhaustive, but is meant to give you an idea of the breadth of people making this claim as well as the number of issues to which it has been applied. Its impossible to escape the overall message: this President isn't competent in his accomplishments, he's just lucky.

Without the racial lens of incompetence, the media might have noticed that this President has had to traverse all kinds of racist minefields that are simply ignored by this kind of analysis. After we've taken that into account, how about recognizing that he took office when we were involved in two wars and suffering from the worst recession since the 1940's? Upon taking office, he faced the most partisan obstructionism we've seen in our lifetimes.

To do that would be to recognize that this black man is one of the most competent people to have ever held the office of President. And that would be to presume that he is equal to - or, heaven forbid, better than - a whole host of white guys.


  1. Wow! Thank you for this---LIke everyone else, I read the "he's so lucky" pronouncements and don't pay attention to what's behind them because, well, lucky breaks are lucky breaks.

    But it's what you do with the lucky break, right? Barack Obama is a strategic thinker: He is able to remain several jumps ahead of the rest of us because he plans it all out---all the possible contingencies and consequences, and what he can do to plan for and prepare for all the ways that something might play itself out over time.

    Personal conduct, personal behavior, respect, likability, noble purpose, humility, communication, fellowship----we have never been s fortunate in the presidency in these times, for this world. It is what it is, so let's send out more good energy.

  2. What gets me the most is that demands are made of him that were never made of a previous president. For instance, whenever he takes advantage of even a moderate presidential perk, he is criticized as "tone deaf" because he doesn't live like a poor person.

    One comment that I read after Pope Francis's election was that Francis was "so much more credible" than the President since he rejected the trappings of power. Why, the commenter asked, couldn't President Obama live in a small rented apartment in a poor part of town and take the bus to the White House in the morning?

    Well, for one because the every POTUS since John Adams has lived in the White House, not just come to work there, even during times of economic hardship. So why exactly should the first black president break with that tradition?

    Second, unlike Pope Francis, President Obama is not a monk who has taken a vow of poverty. Besides, as Ted Kennedy has shown, one does not have to be poor to be an advocate for the poor.

    Third, when it comes to private vacations, clothes, and the daughters' school, the Obamas are not doing anything they couldn't already afford before 2009. Yet they are portrayed as grifters who moved from the ghetto to the White House.

    If that's not racism, I don't know what is.

    1. Excellent examples of moving the goalposts for the black guy!

  3. Remember the Bush/Gore campaign? Remember how people in the press lied repeatedly about Gore? They fancy themselves king makers now and that could very well be true, at times. Had the public seen how much more support Gore had than Bush, all along, and had reported fairly on both of them, by the time we got to the ballots, it might have been impossible to make it look close. Had they not been lying about Gore, he likely would have gotten a lot more votes. You might find this on-line book interesting and a good resource on media misbehavior:

    We can especially thank minority votes for putting Obama in the White House. Now that he's been elected twice, all the press can do is try to destroy his legacy, pump up the rabblerousers, and discourage people from giving the House and Senate to Democrats, so that we can see what President Obama does with a majority in Congress. Greenwald and Snowden are ratf***ers, and the emotarians are idiots and both think that they're smarter than the average bear because of the nature of their fantasies.

    Hopefully, the press will not fool enough people to turn Congress over to the tea party or any Republican.

  4. Great Piece!

    Just for fun, google the five words "what Obama can learn from." Everyone from President Truman to Lady Gaga to Tim Tebow has an important lesson to teach our "incompetent" President. It sickens me.

  5. All I can say is, "Thank you" for this analysis. I'm sick of the constant stream of invective aimed at this President, not just from the usual Reich Wing suspects but the emo-progs and mainslime media as well. What strikes me as so ironic is that the people criticizing do absolutely nothing to make the country better. They just spew lies and hate and feed off the fear and hatred of their bosses and audiences. Why do so many people give their power to these leeches?

  6. SP this was brilliant! As an AA who lived in the '60 when Affirmative Action was all the rage, It didnt matter how good you were at that job you were always "lucky"! To have it, get recognition, promoted, any excellence was "lucky"! It was sickening and debilitating.
    This President is so far above these miniature people that he can hardly stomach their smallness. But he still leans forward trying to hear their side just as his mother taught him to do. He is magnificent!

  7. goes all the way back to hillary people, e.g. "inadequate black male":

    1. Thank you! And thanks SP for keepin' it real.


  8. Mo'nin, NANCY

    Congrats on "comin' out"!!! Therein...should I still call you "Ms. Pants"???? :-) Alright....
    If I may, why what you've done/do differs from Chait - and why it's better. And, I THINK I can be fairly concise.

    I re-read the piece. For me, I would've been much more appreciative if Chait kept it to why (he was born in '72 so he's been here a little bit) after seeing a MOVIE, THENNNN he really gave SERIOUS thought to the impact of a completely inhumane approach used on a people and impacting a country since, at least 1619. Leonard Cohen did the same thing (and I have some thoughts about the "gymnastics" he was doing in his piece) and he's even older. In addition, and maybe you can help here, he, and I can only speculate as to why, "softens" Hillyear. ?????? He riffs on Conservatives. Talks about what "they" don't get. Which is true. They don't. But, he ends his piece talking about their inability to: "detect the still-extant residue (now, I LIKE this one. gotta remember it. I'll give him credit) of that world all around them". From the guy that FInally had one fitful night of sleep because it dropped into place in his head after seein' a damn MOVIE (I noticed I was hittin' the keys rather hard as I typed those last words).

    It's how he's making it, re: himself, that HE's got it figured out and "gets" it and the Conservatives don't. Dude sees a movie and THEN it dawns on him that black folk, at any point, live in sheer, honest to goodness TERROR - still. THIS right HERE is what pisses black folk off about "Liberals".

    You, on the other hand, while speaking truth, freely acknowledge that you actively wrestle in an on-going process. There's things, sometimes, that you may not quite get, you'll say so, and invite in-put/feed back. Indeed, you correctly identify PBO's major "sin" (and, therefore, why the resultant rage and raging behavior), and that's been the fear since 1619 and what's behind all of the sustained effort to invent these systems and keep them in place. And, you talk about these matters on a REGULAR basis, not only about PBO, but regular people (and for those who may be reading my words but don't know...Nancy, for well over 20 years, walked this talk EVery day. it ain't just theory with her). You ain't needed no damn MOVIE to "guilt" you into thinking more deeply.

    And, THIS, my friend, is why "we" love you. No...

    Chait needs to be checkin' YOU out. EVery damn day if he REALLY wants to go deep.

    1. I totally get what you're saying. Chait went to extraordinary lengths to give Hillyear an assist. That really bothered me as well. I have no idea why he spent so much time doing that when it muddled the powerful message he had just conveyed.

      I haven't seen Chait write about this topic before. So I guess I assumed he'd done work on it before and that it was more than just the movie that woke him up. But perhaps you're right and I'm giving him more of the benefit of the doubt than he deserves.

      Thanks for the support as well as the nudge on that one ;-)

  9. I think you over read the racial aspects of "lucky" from the left. I just think they won't be happy until they have a Ted Cruz of the left pontificating and posturing, as opposed to a competent politician and leader trying to navigate incredibly polarized times

  10. Mo'nin, Nancy
    Anonymous up above me, no she really didn't over read. It means what she's telling everyone. If you listened to, or yet will, his presser from yesterday, one of the questions he got was from a woman from the AP. As she is listing his "problems", she asks him: "Do you understand....?" Like SHE has to explain to him. After over five years, he still doesn't know what he's doing, so he has to be told. This is far from new. What's underneath it is the myth that if one has a goodly amount of melanin in them, then, they just canNOT be as intelligent as ones that have very little. A seriously old trope and, as Nancy correctly pointed out, the Libs just don't hesitate in telling him that he really does need to do what they say because, after all, they really do know better. And, right before I wrote this, I saw one of the latest AP headers: "Obama skips out of Washington for Hawaii vacation". His intelligence, integrity, and understanding of social order and his own place within it are relentlessly questioned EVERY day. And, Nancy's explaining it (and, Nancy...I see you have a friend in Jim Stuart) chapter AND verse.

    1. Thanks for responding to "anonymous" Blackman. I get SOOO tired of white people's deep need to avoid the role of racism in things like this. But oh how they LOVE yelling about the Duck Dynasty variety.

      And yes, you might say that Jim Stuart and I are of "like mind." Especially when it comes to how we see PBO.

  11. McArdle is very closely tied with the Koch brothers, it a shame anyone takes her seriously. I really wish more people knew this about her.