Chris Matthews on MSNBC: “I forgot he was black tonight for an hour.”
There will undoubtedly be a lot of conversation about Chris Matthews potentially well-intentioned, albeit totally misguided, attempt to talk about the ways in which Obama’s leadership affected him last night. He’s already attempted to clarify, talking about how miraculous he found it that race, Obama’s racial identity in specific, wasn’t a part of the analysis or interpretation of the State of the Union. He said: “I saw it almost like an epiphany. I hope it’s true. I hope what I saw is true that we’ve gotten beyond it, at least at the presidential level…He’s taken us beyond black and white in our politics.”
First things first, race consciousness is not something you take on or off like a pair of glasses. Pundits may not have immediately followed Obama’s speech with, “Well, he sure did talk about the economy well for a black guy,” but that doesn’t mean that their interpretation wasn’t influenced by their own relationship to race, their subconscious stereotypes etc. There is no such thing as race-less political analysis, at least not in this country, at this time and place. (No such thing, I might add, as a gender-less political analysis either.)
What is important, and I think this is what Matthews was actually trying to articulate, though very badly, is that Obama’s racial identity has become a more intrinsic part of the punditry’s interpretation. There are great things about this…finally we are spending valuable airtime looking at his policies, his leadership styles, and his vision, rather than the campaign-era where every other thing out of a pundit’s mouth was about identity politics (for the record, some of this forwarded a conversation about race in this country, although too much of it was inane and distracting). There are also dangerous things about this…guys like Chris Matthews can feign excitement over racism being over, when in fact, it is very much still at work in both our personal perceptions and our nation’s most powerful institutions. Some might be attracted to the notion that if we don’t say it at the beginning, middle, and end of every broadcast, than it’s no longer an issue, but that’s just not true.
At this point, in this country, there is no “beyond” race. There is the new capacity to background racial identity and prioritize other issues–the economy, healthcare, foreign policy–but all of these issues are inextricably tied up in race (and gender and class and…).