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Earl Ofari Hutchinson Headshot

Matthews May Have Almost Forgot Obama Was Black, But Many Others Haven't

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Chris Matthews got a mini-version of the Harry Reid treatment for his honest slip that he almost forgot Obama was black when he watched him during the State of the Union Speech. Matthew's operative word is not black but "almost." But it really wouldn't have made much difference if Matthews had dropped the almost. The meaning, or at least the thought behind it, would still have been the same. Matthews just couldn't stop thinking about race when Obama spoke.

Can't be too hard on him, though, for his foot-in-the mouth blurt. Matthews, as Reid, simply muttered an uncomfortable but tormenting reality for Obama; and that's that Obama's presidency, eloquence, political acumen, and still sky high personal likability has not buried thoughts about Obama and race in the skulls of many.

The racial pillorying of the president has been ruthless and relentless. There are countless active anti-Obama websites filled with demeaning racist cartoons, depictions, characterizations and racially poisonous verbal bashes and attacks. The sites have received millions of hits and posts -- almost all unflattering.

The digs have worked. Polls show that a majority of Republicans and a significant percent of other respondents still think there's something to the charge that Obama is an illegal alien. On the eve of Obama's State of the Union Address, and fully one year after his election, a California Field Poll found that, fully one-third of Californians nation's most populous state are not satisfied that Obama was U.S.-born. More than ten percent have convinced themselves that he's a Constitution-violating foreigner and nearly one-quarter aren't sure.

The silly talk about a post-racial America after Obama's presidential win was not merely exercises in self-delusion, honest wish and hope, or deliberately disinformed media chatter. Race, Obama or no, is and continues to be America's oldest, deepest and touchiest issue. Politicians know it. And they can subtly work the race card to inflame passions, deepen divisions, and bag votes. Or they can ignore it and hope that it goes away, at least until the votes are counted. With presidential candidates, and as we've seen with Obama in the White House, race has been a taboo subject for presidents and their challengers on the campaign trail for the past two decades. No president or presidential challenger, especially a Democrat, can risk being tarred as pandering to minorities for the mere mention of racial problems.

The double standard on race is troublesome to Obama. He backpedaled fast from his first, and impulsive, quip that the white Cambridge officer who man handled and cuffed Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates was out of line. The reaction to Obama's Gate's defense was savage and the backlash momentarily sent his poll numbers down. When the Congressional Black Caucus saber rattled Obama in December with the threat of voting against one of his financial reform measures if he didn't do more to help black businesses and the black unemployed, Obama was unfazed. He told an interviewer that he would not do anything special to help blacks. He had too. He has one eye always nervously fixed on public opinion. The Gates flap reminded him again in no uncertain terms that race is a deadly minefield that can blow up at any time and the explosion can fatally harm him, his image, and his presidency.

But polls, white voter wariness over race and Obama's nervous eye on them can't magically make racial issues disappear. In each of its annual State of Black America reports the past decade the National Urban League found rampant discrimination and gaping economic disparities between Latinos and whites in every area of American life. In the past decade, the income, and education performance gaps between blacks and Latinos and whites have only marginally closed, or actually widened. Discrimination remains the major cause of the disparities.

Shunting race to the back burner of presidential campaigns invariably means that presidents shunt them to the backburner of their legislative agenda. Yet, presidents have not been able to tap dance around racial problems. Reagan's administration was embroiled in affirmative action battles. Bush Sr.'s administration was tormented by urban riots following the beating of black motorist Rodney King. Clinton's administration was saddled with conflicts over affirmative action, police violence and racial profiling. W. Bush's administration was confronted by the HIV/AIDS pandemic, voting rights, reparations, and affirmative action battles, gang violence, and failing inner city public schools.

The pile of racial or race-laden problems that always lurk just under the surface haven't and won't go kapoof and vanish. Matthews's "almost forgot" crack about Obama's blackness was just one more reminder from a windy, and obnoxious, talking head of that.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is, How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press).