I did a very interesting interview for my most recent story, but not a word of it made it onto the AP wire. I could have used it, but chose not to. Here’s what happened:
I was in Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, looking for people to interview about their perceptions of how race relations had changed since the election of the first black president. I spotted a white gentleman eating alone. He looked to be in his mid-50s. I introduced myself and he was happy to speak with me. He gave me his name, occupation (construction management for a state transportation agency), and home town (in a mountainous state between California and Kansas). He was traveling on business. He had voted for Obama in 2008 “because I thought he could unify the country.”
Unify how, I asked. Politically? Racially?
“Both, really,” he said.
But now this man was completely unhappy with Obama. He thought he had “deepened racial divisions” through policies like “Obamacare” and other things that act as a “tax on working people and are a huge benefit to those who don’t deign to work, who reside on welfare for years.”
And these people who don’t deign to work are disproportionately black?
“Yes. More of an inner-city type of individual,” he said.
At this point, let me say that I do not believe this man is a racist. We spoke for about 30 minutes. I don’t think he believes white people are better than black people, or that black people are lazy, violent, and so forth. And it seems very unlikely that he could be a racist and vote for Obama in 2008. I can’t be certain, of course. But this was my impression from the overall tone and nuance of the statements he made.
Back to the interview: The man said a lot of things that I have heard from many non-racist white Americans: Obama seems to favor black people. He’s “pushing an agenda through the Democratic political system to try and benefit certain classes or groups of people more than others.” That when Obama said, “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon,” he was “saying subconsciously that Trayvon couldn’t have done anything wrong, and he shouldn’t have been penalized because he looks that way.”
(“Penalized” is quite a mild euphemism for losing your life.)
Looks what way, I asked the man. Black?
“That’s right,” he said.
I understand where these feelings come from, because I spend a lot of time on my job speaking to white Americans. They are not unusual ideas.
Then came the most interesting part. I was setting up a question and mentioned that Obama doesn’t talk often about race.
The man interrupted me: “His wife does, though.”
“She talks about it, and he can’t divorce himself from what she says.”
What kind of things does she say?
“Things like, I hate America.”
As it happened, I had just finished writing a profile of Michelle Obama. I had read two biographies of her, a half-dozen in-depth profiles, and two months’ worth of “Michelle Obama” Google alerts. Not once had I seen any mention of her saying, “I hate America.” I had not even seen a debate over her saying that. I’m fairly certain that she has never publicly said anything close to that. If she had, they would be making a fortune selling T-shirts with that quote above her picture.
I asked the man if he had actually seen a clip of her saying that, or read a quote to that effect. He acknowledged that he had not, but “she is credited with saying it.”
And you believe that?
“I think she could have said it,” the man said.
Anyway, I wrap up the interview and proceed to quote the guy in my story, because like I said, his statements were indicative of how a significant portion of the population thinks. The next day, I get an email from him:
“After our interview yesterday in Philadelphia I talked to my supervisor. He was not very pleased with our conversation. It is extremely important that you do not reference my name or my company. If that happens I will most likely lose my job. Additionally my wife was not happy because she believes we will be stigmatized if our neighbors find out about my position.”
This put me in a tough spot. I was on deadline. AP does not permit the use of anonymous quotes in this situation. I would have been well within my rights to include his name—people often regret what they said in a moment of candor and try to take it back.
But what kind of guy would I be if this guy lost his job?
I took him out of the story. I did have a question, though. What was his wife afraid of, exactly? That his neighbors like Obama so much they would treat her badly if they know how this guy feels about him?
“I won't pretend to understand where she is coming from,” he emailed me back. “Even after 32 years I can't guess on this one.”
This is funny because it's so real--a great exploration of how when it comes to racial comments, some folks don't even think about what they are saying. Black folks have been militant about policing racial stereotypes for a long time now, so most everybody knows how to avoid getting Jimmy the Greeked. But when an Asian ballplayer comes along, there's not much precedent. Yet another reason why Jeremy Lin means something important beyond points and assists.
Rev. Sharpton said he thought this Saturday Night Live parody was funny. In case you were wondering, he's doing well in the ratings, with 830,000 nightly viewers and an MSNBC-leading 191,000 in the coveted 25-54 age bracket. You gotta endure the ad to see the full parody.
Who changed the world more, Steve Jobs or Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth?
My colleague Sarah Nordgren raised this point with me yesterday, and it stopped me in my tracks. I had unconsciously accepted the status quo that exalts money, materialism and "success" above all.
But what’s more important, technology or human rights? Were black people the only ones to benefit from the Civil Rights Movement, or did America as a whole?
Picture America with no iAnything. Now picture it with no racial equality.
Hey, I’m as deep into the Mac cult as anyone. I represent Mac to the fullest. And Jobs deserved to be remembered as a world-changer. But so does Rev. Shuttlesworth. And I fear that hardly anyone will even remember his name, let alone what he gave us.
Yesterday a few Ebonicisms caught my eye, when a Mike Vick quote was de-ghettofied and President Obama was quoted as "telling black people to stop complainin'." That missing G means a lot. So much, in fact, that the writer Karen Hunter told MSNBC that AP is racist for accurately transcribing the president:
I don't get the 15-yard flags like everybody else do." (It was changed to, "like everybody else DOES.") I think that if you don't want to quote someone's bad English, just paraphrase them. But to change what's in between the quote marks is to change reality.
Here's the segment with Hunter n'em. Long Live Ebonics.
This post is for everyone who, like me, jumped on the headline this weekend in which President Obama told black people to "quit complainin.'" I urge you to read the full transcript of his speech here. The speech lasted 28 minutes and is about 3,500 words on the printed page. "Quit complainin'" was in the second-to-last sentence. Should that have been the headline? If Obama is speaking to the Black Caucus, is he really speaking to "blacks" in general, or to "black Democratic politicians"? If Mike Vick goes on TV tomorrow and says, "I need to quit complainin'," will his quote be printed with a G on the end? You be the judge.
Jesse Washington is a Senior Writer for ESPN's TheUndefeated.com