clearly the wrong thing, albeit well-meant, for Chris Matthews to say on network television about President Obama's State of the Union speech.
What the excited Matthews seemed to be trying to say was that Obama has now transcended race as a leader, and that the speech was a triumph of pure leadership in a way that made color irrelevant. I think Matthews is partly right on the transcendent part: although neither this presidency nor virtually anything else American is yet post-racial, Obama's personality and politics have greatly loosened the hold that stock ideas about race have on our assessment of him. Obama is succeeding in stripping racial labels from some of his own qualities, including eloquence and weakness of will. I do disagree with Matthews about the triumphant emergence of Obama as a leader. But none of this is what got Matthews into trouble.I'm generally not much for these five-minute "Was his comment racist?" media flurries. Harry Reid's infamous remark about Obama's being a strong candidate partly because he is light-skinned and has no discernible "black" accent (in the quotes I read, Reid said "Negro," which says a lot about the apparently very small cave in which Reid resides) was, I think, Reid's way of saying that a big portion of the white electorate is still too racist to vote for a dark-skinned president whose tone of voice "sounds" black. Bear in mind that Reid's soundbite came from a conversation about campaign politics. Bear in mind, too, that Reid's political observation was accurate: a darker-skinned Obama who "sounded" black would have lost. I'm not talking grammar, as in "We gonna right this injustice" versus "We're going to right this injustice." I'm talking pure tonality, a deeper-pitched Southern-curled quality of voice that strikes the ear as black while speaking with grammatical perfection. With that voice, Obama loses in '08. Sorry, but I think it's undeniably true, and Reid knew it. Even the colorless-voiced light-skinned Obama lost the overall white vote in the election. So, in the end, Reid's slip looked to me less like racism than simple stupidity about where he could speak with such candor. As I said on a radio show a few weeks ago, putting faith in the political judgment of a prominent Democrat today is like going rabbit hunting with Elmer Fudd.
But Chris Matthews' gaffe, I think, was a well-intentioned but racist remark. Its underlying presumption was that one needs to momentarily "forget" that Obama is black in order to view him as universally compelling and appealing. Maybe that isn't what Matthews meant, but it's what he said. And it's racist. Is it worth talking about for more than five minutes? No. It is one of a long string of foot-in-mouth incidents we will continue to see as many Americans painfully learn how to embrace both blackness and erudite authority in the personage of President Barack Obama.
All of these national "oops!" moments point to something that Barack Obama and the rest of we black folks with college degrees and "non-black" speech patterns have encountered for years: a lot of white folks -- especially older white folks -- simply don't know how to talk to us, or how to talk about us, without stumbling over their own racial habits of mind.