Oprah Winfrey tries as much as possible to avoid controversial subjects, but on occasion, she’ll say something politically sensitive.
During an interview for the U.K. release of The Butler last week, she floated the possibility that race has something to do with the opposition to President Obama. Asked by BBC reporter Will Gompertz if “some of the treatment of Obama and the challenges he’s faced…is because he’s an African-American,” Winfrey responded: “Has it ever crossed my mind?…Probably it’s crossed my mind more times than it’s crossed your mind. Just the level of disrespect. When the senator yelled out, ‘You’re a liar’—remember that? Yeah, I think that there is a level of disrespect for the office that occurs, and that occurs in some cases, and maybe even many cases, because he’s African-American.”
Notice what Winfrey isn’t saying. She isn’t saying Republicans oppose Obama because of his race, nor is she generalizing to all conservative opposition. That makes the right-wing reaction a little puzzling. Bill O’Reilly, for instance, scolded Winfrey this week for using the “race card.” But unless you see racism as a verboten subject, acknowledging the salience of race in anti-Obama rhetoric isn’t the same as using race to deflect criticism. Likewise, at National Review on Wednesday, Jonah Goldberg had a similarly lizard-brain response, reflexively attacking Winfrey for what he imagined she said—“Conservatives are racists”—and not what she told the interviewer.
To me, it’s clear what Winfrey is referencing. She’s pointing to a specific kind of disrespect, one that dismisses Obama as unworthy of the office, and does so in language that is racially suspect. Arguably, “you lie” is one of those things, even if it’s impossible to know Rep. Joe Wilson’s motivations. That the first black president is also the first to have his State of the Union address interrupted is significant, Wilson’s intent regardless.
Beyond him, it’s simply a fact that there has been a strand of anti-Obama rhetoric that uses race as a strike against the president, from offensive postcards to the long obsession with his citizenship. And then there are the attacks that rely on race for their power, from Fox News’ long obsession with the overblown “New Black Panther Party” to the repeated accusations that Obama is a black racist who seeks reparations for African-Americans and ignores violence against whites. To pretend that hasn’t been part of the opposition to Obama is both to rewrite history and hold the nonsense view that racism isn’t a part of our politics.
Right-wing rage notwithstanding, Winfrey was making a banal point. Race plays a part in perceptions of Obama, and while the opposition to his presidency isn’t racist, it’s silly to ignore the extent to which the tenor of anti-Obama rhetoric is shaped by race.