Saturday, April 23, 2011


The excerpt from the new book about Stanley Ann Dunham that appears in the Sunday Times Magazine section gives me an excuse to get something off my chest about one of the meanings of the Obama Presidency. Ms. Dunham was, of course, the President's mother, and as the profile in the Times and in the upcoming book suggest, she was a remarkable person who left an indelible impact on the President's character and outlook. The final paragraphs of the article are largely quotations from an interview that the author, Janny Scott, conducted with the President and they are powerfully revealing.

The President praises his mother as resilient and persistent, but also characterizes her as poorly organized, someone who could not have accomplished what she did without the assurance that her parents would provide a stable home for her son and his sister. Obama's concluding remarks simply affirm that the greatest gift his mother gave him was the unconditional love that he never doubted he could count on.

What I want to add is a kind of non sequitur, I guess, but, in any case, it is simply this. I think the Obama Presidency is, among other things, a test for the American people of their ability to face up to this country's shameful racist past and to learn something that will begin the process of healing the wounds this past has wrought. It also holds up a mirror to the American people's ability to confront everyday racism. So far, the results are not promising. I attribute a significant part of the controversy regarding Obama's birthplace, his personal history, his current policies to the persistence of racism.

A friend told me recently that a relative of his believes that Obama is a Muslim AND a terrorist. He said there is no persuading her otherwise; this is just part of what she is convinced is true. And this is not some white supremacist, neo-nazi we're talking about. Just a relatively ordinary, middle-class, white American, who believes, among other things, that the President of the United States is intent upon destroying the very country he ostensibly serves. Seemingly crazy?! Of course. But my point is that the Obama Presidency has brought out into the open the depth and breadth of American racism. This is scary, to be sure, but it also could be healthy over the long run for this country to see more clearly than ever how much race shapes Americans' thinking and actions.

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