Obama, Osama and a New Conversation
May 4, 2011
Last Friday’s Real Time with Bill Maher was playing when my brother’s text arrived telling me that Osama bin Laden was dead.
While much of the rest of the country waited for President Obama to address the nation, I watched conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart echo others calling for the release of the president’s college records and suggesting that he didn’t write his first book.
Between his sharp-tongued performance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and the killing of Osama bin Laden, President Obama effectively changed what was becoming an increasingly divisive, and for some, very painful, conversation about the president’s abilities, accomplishments and status as an American.
Now the news continues to be dominated by the unfolding details around bin Laden’s death. But one thing we in this country have learned during Obama’s two years in office is how quickly we can swing from moments of great unity to almost paralyzing polarization.
Inevitably the spotlight on bin Laden will fade and we will once again be left with the under girding issues that continue to divide us.
They will continue to confound us unless we finally learn how to face them head on and learn to talk about race.
It seemed as if perhaps we were coming closer to that last week. After having seemingly removed the word racism from polite conversation, public figures, including David Letterman and CBS newsman Bob Schieffer, openly discussed their concerns that Trump was trading in just that when he insinuated that Obama only got into Columbia and Harvard universities because he is black.
But it’s not enough for the media to simply repeat the charges and countercharges. We need to go deeper.
We need to explain how the diminution of African American achievement has historically been used to continually cast African Americans as people somehow outside the norm and who do not contribute to our country.
When Trump and others question Obama’s academic achievements it is a painful reminder to many African Americans that you can reach the highest pinnacles and still be dragged down by repeated requests to prove your credentials.
But equally disturbing was the fact that on this issue, Trump’s hypocrisy went virtually unnoted given that there are questions swirling around Harvard’s acceptance of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Golden, notes in this book “The Price of Admission” that Kushner was admitted after his parents made a $2.5 million donation.
This is not a call for tit for tat coverage, but rather a reminder of the need for context. If we’re going to talk about whether some people have advantages, we need to talk about all of those advantages, including wealth and family status.
We also need to do a better job explaining what is going on from the perspective of the so-called Birthers, and others who do not believe Obama was born here.
It is all too easy to write that movement off as one that was simply stoked by the political aspirations of people like Donald Trump and Michele Bachmann. But even if that is true, with polls showing that a large percentage of Republicans think it is at least possible that Obama was born elsewhere, they are tapping into a profound sense of unease with this president.
People tend not to act irrationally. We just don’t always understand the reasoning behind their actions. Our job as journalists is to figure out what is driving our fellow citizens to continually reject the proffered proof that Obama was born in Hawaii.
When it comes to those who seemingly fear Obama, we have failed.
Today the angry rhetoric has been damped down by the death of Osama bin Laden.
From past experience, we know this lull won’t last. Let’s use the time now to figure out how we can better cover our deep cultural divides.
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