Thursday, March 20, 2008

What Obama meant about his grandmother

Senator Obama's landmark speech on race relations has dominated the news cycle for the past couple of days. There have been many reactions, a good summary of them from Howard Kurtz at the Washington Post is here. I found it amazing how Senator Obama was able to so eloquently blend his own life story with the rest of the American racial experience in a way that both caused reflection and hope. This morning, however, Senator Obama made remarks during a Philadelphia radio interview that were much more controversial than anything he said during the speech. When asked about the comments he made about his grandmother during the speech, Obama said:

The point I was making was not that my grandmother harbors any racial animosity, but that she is a typical white person. If she sees somebody on the street that she doesn't know - there's a reaction in her that's been bred into our experiences that don't go away and sometimes come out in the wrong way and that's just the nature of race in our society. We have to break through it. What makes me optimistic is you see each generation feeling less like that. And that's pretty powerful stuff

The statement has already received bad press from different corners of the media, and deservedly so. No Caucasian likes being called a "typical white person."  This is the kind of unforced error that Senator Obama cannot afford to make as he closes in on the Democratic nomination.

As impolitic as the comment was, Senator Obama does have a point when it comes to the instantaneous reactions people have to African Americans. These reactions are illustrated by Harvard University's Implicit Association Test, which tries to compare how people associate Caucasians and African Americans with things that are good or bad.  You can take the test yourself by clicking on the link, selecting demonstrations and choosing the Race IAT.  Results from Harvard's study show that 88% of white people have a pro-white or anti-black implicit bias.  The influence of the image blacks that is bred into our society is so strong the even 48% of blacks showed the same pro-white or anti-black bias.

Senator Obama has an important role in discussing race in America.  Let's hope that in the future he chooses his words on the radio as carefully as he chose them during his March 18th speech.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I liked the thoughtful stuff you put in your blog.