The initial reaction, at least for supporters of President Obama, is to wonder if the image of a room full of young, white campaign workers at his Chicago reelection headquarters is some sort of Photoshopped dirty trick.
The campaign is pushing back, saying the photo is much Internet ado about nothing, but the image, first published by Buzzfeed and then picked up by the Drudge Report, is real and it is damning. Our first sitting president of color is so afraid of being labeled “president of the blacks” by his enemies that he goes in the other direction and earns a reputation for stiff-arming citizens of color.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus raised their voices to object to Obama’s tendency to distance himself from them early on in his term but eventually backed off of the complaint, at least in public. But one member of the caucus, who didn’t want to be named, said that several black members of Congress aren’t eager to go to visit the White House even when invited. Others secretly agree with Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, who have been unremitting in their criticism of Obama on matters of race. Still others ask why anyone is surprised, since this facet of his personality was well known before he assumed the presidency.
Many blacks justify Obama’s distancing as part of the heavy burden of being “the first black” anything. Those first through the door previously reserved for whites have had to be brilliant, talented, but most of all humble. The abuse Jackie Robinson—a fiery competitor with a quick temper—took in his early career didn’t come to light until years later. But many others argue this is a different era, and that they didn’t elect Obama to be doormat in chief.
The lily-white photo is all the more puzzling given that the president’s staffers have consistently managed to find persons of color to be on stage behind him at campaign events. How could a supposedly savvy political operation assemble such a monochromatic room? The photo is a testament to how overlooked diversity is in America. It doesn’t simply happen on its own, but has to be worked at.
The first step on the rung of the political ladder in America for young people is working on a campaign, and nothing looks better on a résumé than a presidential campaign. So the line for volunteers and paid staffers is very long, and the competition fierce—but all of those selected could not have just happened to be white absent racism on someone’s part.
Some accomplished blacks joke the president must feel that he and Eric Holder are the only qualified blacks in Washington, or the country … as they point to his high-ranking appointments—a lineup almost bereft of blacks. However, most are willing to cut the president some slack in hopes that he’ll do better in the second term that even his detractors in the minority community sincerely want him to have.
But the photo—it looks like a Young Republicans gathering—has robbed the president of his bully pulpit on the subject of race and diversity, not that he’d been inclined to use it much. How can he now call for others to do what he and his own team are evidently not doing?
President Obama could start mopping up this hot mess by causing some heads to roll in his Chicago campaign headquarters.