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The Audacity of Whiteness: Framing Barack Obama

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"This country cannot be the country we want it to be if its story is told by only one group of citizens. Our goal is to give all Americans front-door access to the truth." -- Robert C. Maynard (Maynard was one of the founders of the 30-year-old Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, which works to increase diversity in staffing, content and business operations of American media.)

I know its bad form to mention race and upset the new post-racial apple cart, the one that doesn't even have a black chauffer like the genial Hoke to drive Miss Daisy around. Nope, in this post-racial world Hoke's been laid off or taken the buy-out. (At least 300 black journalists left the print media in 2007, and there's every indication that 2008 was worse. Richard Prince's Journal-isms column at www.mije.org is an ongoing record of attrition.) In this brave new world the playing field's level, Dr. King's dream's been realized, and it's all about the meritocracy. Yet a look at the unbearably white American media reminds us that even with a black president little has changed in terms of who frames the issues. With the exception of CNN, which probably employs more black people than BET and definitely has more news coverage, for the most part media looks like a meeting of the White Citizens Council, circa 1956. As determined to retain control of the dialogue as those racists were to maintain the Southern way of life.

Why is it okay for George Will to have President Obama to dinner with conservative journalists with not a black face in the room? How many journalists attended parties in Washington during the inauguration where there were no journalists of color present? Isn't it disturbing to the journalistic establishment that the vast majority of journalists, commentators, talking heads, pundits, and experts discussing the new president and his administration are white? In 2009 can anyone seriously argue that aren't more than a handful of black, Latino, Asian, or Native Americans who fit these categories? Is this time for change we can believe in, or is it still time for black to get back?

For two years I'd managed, along with most black people, to go along with one of the unspoken shibboleths to the election of Barack Obama and kept my mouth closed about racial issues, fearing that such a discussion would be harmful to Obama. This in spite of Bill Clinton showing his ass in South Carolina; Hillary's absurd suggestion that Obama wouldn't know what to do when the phone rang at 3 AM; and John McCain's barely veiled white supremacist campaign. Yet the failure of much of the media to recognize the words of the Negro National Anthem as the first words of Reverend Joseph Lowery's benediction at the inauguration was truly pitiful. That, followed by the general incomprehension of the rhyme at the end of Lowery's remarks -- "When black will not be asked to get in back/When brown can stick around..." -- and then its erroneous attribution by a CNN employee to a civil rights song, rather than rooted in African American folk and oral tradition and the dozens -- a game of verbal insult and one-upmanship -- made it impossible to maintain silence.

It's profoundly dishonest and morally wrong that media coverage of Barack Obama and his presidency is framed by an almost exclusively white press corp. Not just the White House press corps, whose unbearable whiteness Sam Fulwood III wrote eloquently about on theRoot.com in December, 2008. Turn on the television. Most of the reporters -- the ones with shows of their own, steady jobs and influence - are white. Is there no other journalist of color in America besides Gwen Ifill of PBS' Washington Week (fabulous as she is) who could host a news show? (Sorry, CNN, the comedian D.L. Hughley doesn't count.) Apparently not, since when Ifill takes the occasional Friday off her show often becomes segregated.

The absence of African Americans is appalling in light of the plethora of white people from someplace else, especially England, getting paid to frame, spin and explain Barack Obama to Americans. I doubt that I could get a job parsing Gordon Brown to the Brits. At the "serious" magazines, the situation is dismal. Years ago, an editor at The New Yorker told me the reason there weren't more black writers at the magazine was that they didn't understand the publication's "zeitgeist."

What's really changed if the American media continues to view this new administration, and a world that is overwhelmingly populated by black, brown, and yellow people, through white eyes? In this same old world but with a new name, a Black man is president of the United States, but it takes a white man to play him on Saturday Night Live. Arrogance and privilege by another name?

Call me a retro, angry black woman -- or Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress, as Juan Williams, one of the few journalists of color white journalists deign to recognize, called Michelle Obama last weekend -- but why is it that whenever the impact of race is analyzed the role that white privilege plays is absent? In journalism, the result is always the same: white people who are granted the role of analyzing everything and everyone, including African Americans, who are as likely as not to be dismissed, overlooked, or spoken for by white expert opinion.

In reality, this post-modern, post-racial apple cart is for whites only, a dishonest and opportunistic effort to pretend race no longer matters now that Americans have elected Barack Obama president. Post racial is nothing but segregation under a kinder, gentler name, yet another effort to further enshrine white privilege and white supremacy.

What a waste, in this time of profound crisis and the possibilities Barack Obama's presidency presents, to have those possibilities identified and interpreted by whites only. Filtered through the tired lens of whiteness in a twenty-first century in which the attacks of 9/11, American failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the implosion of the markets and the collapse of capitalism are signposts along the road of the dying white culture.

In this auspicious moment, media organizations should be seeking out journalists of color and youth. Instead it's the same old white guys, many of whom seem to verge on apoplexy as they struggle to "explain" Obama. It's as if he, like Klaatu from The Day the Earth Stood Still, fell from the sky, ahistorical, exceptionalist, and, I fear, soon to be, like Oprah or Michael Jordan, conveniently de-raced. This inability to fathom Barack Obama doesn't come as a surprise. For the most part these media heads have managed to live lives absent any serious engagement with black people or black culture. If they had, they would be familiar with the existence of the black middle class, a long-established group of overachievers whose mantra is that you have to work harder, smarter, and be better than your white counterparts to achieve the same results.

Barack Obama is neither an anomaly nor an aberration. He is simply the most successful member of this class of overachievers. His election lays to rest the myth of the meritocracy. Perhaps more amazing than the election of Barack Obama is that someone of his intellect and limitless possibility even wanted the job. Be clear: Barack Obama is part of a continuum. Now that he's broken the glass ceiling it's time for whites to step up their game. Stay tuned.

As candidate and President Obama has made clear, change we need requires sacrifice from all of us. It's not just about black kids pulling up their pants, or working harder in school, or more parental involvement. Nor is it just the overt racists and skinheads who need to get it together. The less obvious and likely more difficult change must come from the chattering class, many of them entrenched liberals and progressives to whom it has never occurred that they are the beneficiaries of white skin privilege.

There are countless black journalists and other journalists of color who can add skill, knowledge, cultural context and depth to covering America's first black president, as part of the White House press corps and in every area of journalism. They should be hired. Post-racial, bah humbug! Meritocracy, ha! I know the road to white privilege when I see it, Miss Daisy, whatever you want to call it.