Friday, July 31, 2009

On backpedaling and power

At lunch today, I was reading Tim Wise's comments (in his excellent book, White Like Me) on the brouhaha that resulted after a black politican in Bermuda (Premier Scott) sent an email in which he said that he was tired of criticism from "people who look like Tony Brannon." Brannon, a conservative, is white. Only intending to circulate the email to his close friends, Scott mistakenly hit "reply all," resulting in widespread coverage of the incident in Bermuda. The public outcry was such that Scott apologized.

Wise notes:
...the most important aspect of the incident, to me at least, was Scott's apology and the fact that he had felt compelled to issue it. The very fact that Premier Scott felt compelled to backpedal after his remarks were made public is testimony to how little power he had, in effective terms. After all, if power truly resided in his hand or the hand of other blacks such as himself, he (and they) would be able to regularly insult whites, say terrible things about them, and never have to apologize at all. Premier Scott would then have been in a position to say, in effect, "screw Tony Brannon" and everyone like him. But he can't, and that's the point. Deep, isn't it? A black man is forced to apologize to white people for a simple comment, while whites have still never had to apologize for the centuries-long crimes of slavery, segregation, and white institutional racism!

Sound familiar doesn't it? Wise might as well been writing about Obama. Yet, can it be true that Obama's beckpedaling "is testimony to how little power he ha[s], in effective terms"? He is, after all, the President of the United States. There is no question that he wields substantial power, and yet. . . perhaps, at least in this particular incident, he wields not quite enough. And that has everything to do with his color. (Though, as an aside, I felt very smug to see photos of the beer party featuring Crowley sitting properly, stuffed in his jacket while Obama reclined casually, jacketless, his sleeves rolled up.)

I was intrigued to notice during last week's Addicted to Race podcast (which you should listen to) that all three panelists noted that Obama "had to" apologize. I have no doubt that any of these women doubt Obama's agency, so I was curious about the choice of the phrase "had to," as if Obama's hand was forced. Because of course, Obama is also a clever politician and strategist. Perhaps in some way unclear to me, this was a brilliant p.r. move.

What do you think, readers? Does Obama have power appropriate to his office? Or not? And how do you see the apology? Evidence of a certain powerlessness? Necessary but evil? A cowardly sidestep? A brilliant move?


  1. I think every president or politician for that matter seems to feel like they have to be ultra PC. That often leads to unfortunate comments and pointless apologies that do nothing but take away media coverage from important things like, I don't know, health care reform.

  2. Tim Wise ROCKS. I just finished "Between Barack and a Hard Place" and it was wonderful. I was reading it while the Gates thing went on, and it was very appropriate (sadly)

    To be honest, I'm torn. On one hand, I see his apology as a bow down to the White Establishment, which angers me. On the other hand, we do need dialogue- in some form or other (but wouldn't a Truth and Reconciliation Committee like South Africa had be more along the lines of what we need?). Unfortunately, I don't think a beer is going to solve this country's race relations and I'm having a hard time believing in "Change."

  3. Thanks for this provocative post Julia. I, too, listened to the Addicted To Race podcast, and I've also been following the Gates sage and the President's entry into all of this with horror and fascination.

    The anti-racist activist and semi-racially paranoid person in me believes that Obama's power in office is different from his white predecessors--how could it not be? Yet, the politico and optimist in me thinks that "different" doesn't necessarily mean "less than" or "less powerful."

    I think, like with most things concerning race, it's complicated. Obama has A LOT of things on his plate--and he waded into this fairly deliberately (that's my interpretation at least) yet he also doesn't want to detract from his health care plan (or the international affairs of the day not to mention the state of the economy). Was the word "stupidly" a mistake? Yes and no. Perhaps he's even saavy enough to know that he might have to apologize for the word and use up a bit of political capital. Or maybe he spoke from his gut and then figured he had to apologize for political expediency.

    And yet, it's one of those apologies that isn't really an apology--it takes back a single adverb but not the crux of his belief: that racial profiling is a problem and that Gates should not have been arrested in his own home. And the great thing is, we're all still talking about it and mulling it over, which means we are keeping alive the important dialogue about racial profiling and racism and white privilege (see, I am a half-glass full gal!)