The discussion of the New Yorker cover featuring Senator Barack Obama dressed as a Muslim of Southwest Asia or East Africa and Michelle Obama dressed as a Black Liberation Fighter with full Afro and AK47 has taken primarily two tracts: the inability to appreciate the satirical intent of the cartoon exactly to condemn the politics of fear, or the bad taste, insensitivity and poor judgment of the New Yorker for publishing the drawing. Both tracts center their discussions, understandably, on the possible impacts on the presidential campaign. Lost, or at least submerged, in the discussion is the Michelle Obama part of the equation of the fear politics, U.S. fear of Black radicalism, U.S. fear of black anger, and thus the persistence of racism. She had the gall to admit that she has not always been proud of her country’s behavior. Imagine that.
The political right represents Black anger as unjustified, irresponsible, and a security risk. The political center and the center-left represent Black anger as perhaps justified for class reasons, but irresponsible, and a political risk as it mobilizes reactionary action from the White working and middle classes who should be in solidarity with the Black working and middle classes. That narrow political spectrum casts persistent Black disenfranchisement, poverty, alienation as essentially behavioral problems. If Black people stop acting the way they do, they too can succeed, a usefully vague notion. So the race that Americans want to take them beyond race turns on race and U.S. inability or unwillingness to address racism, the real “race” problem.
Now, during the week of the Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama’s keynote speech Monday night played the familiar notes of American Exceptionalism, the narrative of uniquely American working class and middle class possibilities for upward mobility and wealth if one works hard enough and sacrifices enough. Michelle Obama emphasized, for example, how her story and her husband’s story are so similar: her raised working class on the Southside of Chicago, and him raised by a single mother, perhaps the only single mother in recent history who Americans have been asked to feel for, and her parents, working class white people. The message was clear: we are really all the same; we Black people are just like you White people.
Revealingly, the mainstream media picked up this sameness theme and framed it as a necessary humanizing of Michelle Obama, that indeed, she had to demonstrate to the American people, which really means most of the 80 percent white electorate, that she and her husband and their daughters are just like other Americans, that they love each other, work hard, believe in God, love their country, are Americans. Consider this: 8 out of every 10 voters in the U.S. are white. A significant number of these 8 voters need to be shown that Black people are human like them. That is what it means to humanize people, isn’t it, to make them more human in some one else’s eyes? How were they perceived before they were humanized? How do Whites really see Blacks if in the week when Barack Obama gave his acceptance speech on the anniversary of Dr. King’s speech at the March on Washington, his wife still needed to be humanized, and this is taken as necessary and serious politics?