In the days since we announced our focus on race relations in Madison in 2014, the response has been encouraging.
Most who have contacted us are supportive of The Cap Times effort, interested in how they can weigh in, get directly involved or connect some existing effort on race to ours for the betterment of African-Americans in the community. Some other calls and emails have been critical, some sharply so.
No surprise, I suspect many of you are thinking. But for me, this recent immersion into race produced this surprise — an epiphany illustrated this week by the national spotlight on two black men who have diametrically contrasting personalities.
One is Barack Obama, our reserved and professorial president. The other is Richard Sherman, the mouthy cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks of the National Football League.
In the episode relating to each, their skin color seemed highly relevant, even central. Were they white, it would not even have qualified as a footnote.
First to Obama. Last week, The New Yorker magazine published an Obama story headlined “Going the Distance,” an in-depth article by David Remnick, author of the acclaimed 2010 book “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama.”
In the magazine account, Remnick describes a West Coast fundraising trip by Obama and interviews the president multiple times. He portrays a president contemplating what’s possible in his final three years in office, and, with Obama’s candid introspections, reflecting on the past five.
One passage, I thought, captured the essence of Remnick’s article: “Obama has every right to claim a long list of victories since he took office: ending two wars; an economic rescue, no matter how imperfect; strong Supreme Court nominations; a lack of major scandal; essential support for an epochal advance in the civil rights of gays and lesbians; more progressive executive orders on climate change, gun control, and the end of torture; and, yes, health-care reform.”
In an interview, Obama tells Remnick: “I have strengths and I have weaknesses, like every president, like every person. I do think one of my strengths is temperament. I am comfortable with complexity, and I think I’m pretty good at keeping my moral compass while recognizing that I am a product of original sin.
“And every morning and every night I’m taking measure of my actions against the options and possibilities available to me, understanding that there are going to be mistakes that I make and my team makes and that America makes; understanding that there are going to be limits to the good we can do and the bad that we can prevent, and that there’s going to be tragedy out there and, by occupying this office, I am part of that tragedy occasionally, but that if I am doing my very best and basing my decisions on the core values and ideals that I was brought up with and that I think are pretty consistent with those of most Americans, that at the end of the day things will be better rather than worse.”
Yet, with Obama, race always lurks. Writes Remnick: “Obama’s election was one of the great markers in the black freedom struggle. In the electoral realm, ironically, the country may be more racially divided than it has been in a generation. Obama lost among white voters in 2012 by a margin greater than any victor in American history. The popular opposition to the administration comes largely from older whites who feel threatened, underemployed, overlooked, and disdained in a globalized economy and in an increasingly diverse country.”
Remnick writes that Obama’s drop in polls in 2013 was especially sharp among whites, wrote Remnick, and that is not lost on Obama. “There’s no doubt that there are some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black president,” Obama said. “Now, the flip side of it is there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I’m a black president.”
The latter group, Remnick wryly noted, has been less evident lately.
The tea party’s rapid ascent and stark divisions in the Republican Party following Obama’s 2008 election was said to be about smaller government. Yet Obama has led as a cautious, slightly left-of-center politician, hardly the socialist of caricatures, so it defies credulity to argue the anti-Obama fervor is unrelated to skin color.
Meanwhile, over in the testosterone-infused culture of sports talk, a firestorm was ignited by the dreadlocked Sherman’s wildly boastful, over-the-top post-game rant after his play two weekends ago sent his team to the Super Bowl.
The trash talk by Sherman, a Stanford graduate, was met with a deluge of social media criticism and widespread rebuke, and he later acknowledged his comments were ''misdirected and immature.”
But, as with Obama, race was nearby.
In an ESPN interview, Sherman said the criticism that most bothered him was the racial overtones in being called a “thug.” “The reason it bothers me is it seems that’s the accepted way now to call someone the n-word," Sherman said.
Later, he told ESPN: “I know some real thugs, and they know I'm the farthest thing from a thug. … I fought that my whole life because of where I've come from (the Compton neighborhood in Los Angeles). You have a guy from Compton or Watts, they just think he’s a thug. He’s a gangster. You fight it for so long, and to have it come back up and hear people use it again is frustrating.”
Think of Johnny Manziel, the hot-dogging college quarterback, or Marshall Henderson, the similarly punkish college basketball player. Last season, Henderson’s team defeated Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament and then, after his team lost the subsequent game, Henderson held up both middle fingers to the crowd on his way off the floor.
The gestures and showboating arrogance of Manziel and Henderson infuriate many, but somehow the fact that both are white is never in the critique.
If you are white, in Madison or elsewhere, your race is last thing people think about when sizing you up.
I am sure most blacks would say, with them, not so much.