Don’t Be Too Black, Mr. President: The Racial Effect of President Obama’s Performance in the 2012 Presidential Debates

By Dr. Darron T. Smith

What does it mean to be Black in America? Many Americans caught a glimpse of it on national television during the first of three presidential debates. The President look disinterested, annoyed, preoccupied, not on his “A” game as some analyst remarked. Other pundits suggested that POTUS appeared tired looking and too nice. Obama supporters and those tough independent voters wanted more.

Remember, it’s been four years since the man has had a debate-he’s rusty. But amidst the fight of his political career, few have considered the enormous psychological cost of being black that the President must feel each and every time he’s on the stage. President Obama is not just another president in the long history of white presidents we’ve had in this country. He’s the first black president, and with that comes additionally burdens that only blacks and other stigmatized minority groups can truly appreciate. His overall likeability ratings are indicative of his daily performance of hyper-politeness, which is what black folk must do when working in predominately white settings. It’s in black Americans’ best interest to keep white folks happy and content as to not upset the racial applecart.

It isn’t natural, by any means, to always have to pretend to be nice to white people-not because you aren’t a genuinely nice person, but because those relationships expend too much emotional energy by feeling like you’re always on stage, teaching whites, or deflecting the many dominate white racial frames they hold in their subconscious mind about African Americans and other groups of color. President Obama must maintain his discipline and his composure or risk being perceived as “too black” and angry, even when it’s well within his purview to launch a counter offensive against Mr. Romney on several key topics like the notorious 47% remark, Bain capital, and why a guy with his stock-pile of cash only pays 14% in taxes? Unlike Mitt Romney, however, President Obama must present himself (unfortunately) at times as stiff and professorial in efforts to put the white voter at ease over the presence of a black man in the White House, even though only 43% of Whites actually voted for Senator Obama in 2008 (http://elections.nytimes.com/2008/results/president/exit-polls.html). So the President has to play it cool and maintain his well-known calm demeanor. He cannot be portrayed as “too black” in the stereotypical sense like raising his voice and showing outward displays of emotion. Otherwise, his actions have the potential to associate him with dominant ideologies of black males (http://www.darronsmith.com/2012/06/entertaining-while-black-the-depiction-of-black-males-in-popular-media-existing-while-black-in-america-series/) who are seen as sub-human, violent, criminal, and “bad”-ideologies that are deeply rooted within U.S. society (and, hence, in our perceptions, attitudes, reactions, and language).

These rules were not established by President Obama, or other Americans of color for that matter, but are a result of a 500 year-old process of domination involving the use of language (white racial knowledge production) around black bodies inscribed in law, politics, education, medicine and every other major institution in society through a collective experience of human suffering, violence, psychological mayhem and the exploitation of labor and land theft. President Obama must work within the established and contemporary racial order or risk the perception of him as a public danger in the White House because his race is a “liability”-the elephant in the room that no ones wants to talk about (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gH4ivOyO0PQ&feature=related). This may be to some extent why he avoids the question of race altogether (at least publicly) so far in his administration. And though the specifics of Romney’s plan for president never materialized throughout the debate, the Romney camp looses nothing by ruffling the President’s feathers in hopes of lighting a fire under him to get him a little more animated and, hence, a little more “black” to the average white viewer. President Obama has all the ammunition to reveal the facts and expose the loopholes of his competitor’s presidential platform that currently lacks in substance. The President can even celebrate a bit today given the national unemployment rate has fallen to 7.8% (http://economywatch.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/10/05/14240541-unemployment-rate-falls-to-78-as-economy-creates-114000-jobs?lite). Mortgage rates are at an all-time low as well (http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2012/10/05/vital-signs-chart-another-record-low-for-mortgage-rates), which is suggestive that the nation is moving in the right direction for many middle-class Americans. So President Obama’s task in the next debate is to maintain a course of calculated assertiveness, “attacking” his opponent’s platform with these additional talking points. But don’t be too black, Mr. President. White America has shown they can’t handle that (at least 57% of them can’t).

 

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