Obama, Osama and a New Conversation

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Dori Maynard
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.



President Barack Obama

Regarding President Barack Obama, leave the man alone; don't you see he is trying to run the country. It bothers me to think that America allowed the President before Obama basically do whatever,whenever he wanted to and a few before him. But it seems to me that every move President Obama makes is a big problem for some. Give the man space don't you see he is a David and he wants to slay all the giants. The BIG giants and little giants. Racism is a thing I believe regardless how far we go, that will always exist because of the lack of knowledge of some people. Because remember for the lack of knowledge people are destroyed, and destroy themselves they will. Educate yourself regarding every race and know that there are good and bad in every race, creed and color. But if one is so closed minded to believe that bad is only in one race. You are truly fooling yourself. Be TRUE to YOU!! GO OBAMA, OBAMA, OBAMA!!!! WHAT?????

"...Trump was trading in just

"...Trump was trading in just that when he insinuated that Obama only got into Columbia and Harvard universities because he is black."  Actually, when I saw that line of inquiry being reported, that's exactly what I thought might've happened- but I don't interpret it in the same way Trump does.  My own reaction was more like, "Yeah, & so what??"  I think it's important to look at context.  I'm close to Obama in age, & in the time of our college years, affirmative action was implemented by quota in a lot of schools & workplaces.  If it got a student of color in who wouldn't otherwise have had the opportunity by virtue of prior academic performance, then I guess it did what it was supposed to do, huh?  Clearly, his achievements since that time outshine any preferential access that may have occurred.

The role of the journalist

I appreciate the clear role for journalists you've laid out in how to best cover issues of race and racism. Investigating root causes and providing historical context is the job of a good journalist, and one that can help move our national conversations forward.  Thanks for this. 

Why don't they just shut-up!

First of all Dori, I'd like to thank you for this great story. I find myself getting so angry at these people that constantly want more and more "proof" that Mr Obama WAS born in America, and DID get into Harverd and Stanford on his own abilities, and on and on and on. What's next?...Mr President, are you from EARTH?? Silly, I know, but I find it harder and harder to remain calm and cool when my so called "friends" start with that crap! SEE, even now I'm starting to get angry. I just recieved an e-mail from a moronic relative saying Obama's birth certificate has false information. I voted for Obama and I have all the faith in the world in him. I can not, in recent memory, think of ANY other President that has been treated so shabbily. And I know it's because he is a black man, and THAT Dori, makes me sick to my stomach. Thank You

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