Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations

"For an hour, I forgot that Obama was black," said Chris Mathews, the host of MS-NBC's "Hardball," after he finished watching President Obama's State of the Union address. Did Mathews mean that he's not used to hearing from articulate blacks who sound just like educated whites?

Recently, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was quoted in the book Game Change as saying privately that Obama, as a black candidate, could be successful thanks in part to his "light-skinned" appearance and speaking patterns "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one." Did he mean that Obama wouldn't have reached the White House if he was darker-skinned or spoke with the African-American vernacular English known as Ebonics?

In the same book, it was reported that Bill Clinton, when he was trying to persuade Ted Kennedy not to support Obama, remarked to the senator, "A few years ago, this guy [Obama] would have been getting us coffee." Did he mean that Obama's race qualified him only for menial jobs? During the 2008 campaign for president, Senator Joe Biden, referring to Senator Barack Obama, said, "I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." Evidently, these folks haven't spent much time around black people. Hence, they're shocked when they come across blacks who are physically attractive, well-spoken, well-dressed, and who bathe regularly.

Keep in mind that the aforementioned comments came from liberal Democrats, the recipients of an overwhelming majority of African-American votes every four years. When I hear or read such remarks, it reminds me of what President George W. Bush said about "the soft bigotry of low expectations." In other words, if you're white and you've lived exclusively among whites all your life, you're likely to be stunned when you see blacks achieving high levels of success in any endeavors. I'm reminded of a great breakthrough movie on race relations from 1967. In the Heat of the Night features Sidney Poitier as a police detective from Philadelphia who's visiting a small Mississippi town when he's picked up for questioning in the murder of a white man. The observations by the racist sheriff, played triumphantly by Rod Steiger, is a classic case of bigotry emanating from low expectations. You see, Detective Virgil Tibbs (Poitier) is wearing a smartly-tailored suit and has a substantial amount of cash in his wallet.

The sheriff and his deputies are as shocked by the black detective's clothes, his money, his manners, and his position as all the Democrats listed above were when they commented on Obama. In addition, when the officers discover that Tibbs is a veteran homicide detective from the "big city," they have trouble dealing with their prejudiced view of what a black man should be. When Tibbs exhibits his considerable investigative and forensic skills, embarrassing the poor excuse for a police unit, the sheriff is compelled to insult him.

"Well, you're pretty sure of yourself, ain't you, Virgil? That's a funny name for a nigger boy from Philadelphia. What do they call you up there?"

Tibb's answer became the title of the sequel: "They call me Mr. Tibbs!" Well, it's been over forty years since that movie became a hit, winning five Oscars, including Best Picture. Yet there are still a lot of people dealing with the stereotyped images they have for blacks. Therefore, when Obama was running for the highest office in the land, he had an enormous number of obstacles to overcome. Not only did he have to defeat the Republicans on the issues, but he also had to defeat Democrats who were making racist comments behind his back.

In the early part of his campaign, Obama couldn't even get many blacks to support him because they had no confidence that he could win. Such was the repressive power of inferiority that had been reinforced by generations of failure. Similarly, generations of whites have been exposed to images of blacks in subservient roles, making it nearly impossible to envision a day when a black would be giving the State of the Union speech. By the way, whenever I refer to Obama as black, I realize that I too have been conditioned to repudiate the white half of his heritage. The "one drop of black blood" rule appears to be so ingrained in our culture that we automatically dismiss the lighter half of his DNA. Chris Mathews may have forgotten that Obama is black for an hour, but the rest of the country doesn't even acknowledge for a minute that he's white.

Bob Weir is a former detective sergeant in the New York City Police Department. He is the executive editor of The News Connection in Highland Village, Texas. E-mail Bob.
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