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Social Studies

Encoded Clowning

By Vincent Williams | Posted 5/13/2009

It looks like Wanda Sykes' act got most of the coverage of this past weekend's White House Correspondent's Dinner, but I was more interested in President Obama's comments. As HIS presidency goes on and he gets cooler and more distant, Obama fascinates me when he jokes or goes off script, because those moments represent rare times when we get to see the man underneath, and, boy, did he come through. I think he's a pretty funny guy, and he said some pretty funny things--he playfully cracked on his own penchant for teleprompter use, as well as Vice President Biden's, uh, Biden-ness--but , for the most part, they were on-script comments. But, boy, Barack Obama straight clowned Michael Steele's ass.

It was quick. Obama noted that Michael Steele was in the house or, "as Michael would say, 'in the heezy!'" and, as he said it, the president flicked off some kind of faux-b-boy hand gesture. Besides happening quickly, it was the most animated moment during the whole speech. I found it to be a devastating critique of the manner in which Steele has conducted himself over the past few months. Specifically, it was a critique of the way in which Steele is presumably going to expand the GOP's base by bringing in more minority voters through the power of jive talking. And I think it's fair to say that, since Steele has been the head of the Republican National Committee, no black voter has said, "Well, between the racial politics of the '60s Dixiecrat phenomenon, 'Cadillac-driving welfare queens,' and the transparent racism of the War on Drugs, Republicans have demonized black people for over 40 years, but, hey, Michael Steele sounds like Soulja Boy, so I'll give 'em another look!"

The irony is that, in admonishing Steele on the buffoonish manner in which he's gone about appealing to black voters, Obama showed him how to do it. For all the vaguely racist notions about the solid black support of Obama due simply to color, what is often overlooked is how adept the president has always been in actually communicating with the constituency of African-Americans. Much like President Bush used coded language and phraseology to signal the evangelical base that he was with them, Obama often signals the black community in the same manner. There have been a few stories in the press that have documented moments like Obama quoting Malcolm X's "bamboozled, hoodwinked, run amok" riff as well as his slip into vernacular a few months ago when he went to Ben's Chili Bowl and said "We good" when asked about his change, but I still don't think most Americans really understood the symbolic power of something like the campaign poster depicting Obama getting a haircut while pontificating with other dudes at his Chicago barbershop. The vast majority of African-Americans don't love Barack Obama just because he's black; hell, Clarence Thomas is black. And I think it's an oversimplification to say he's loved just because he's a black Democrat; Colin Powell has always quietly commanded respect in the black community. No, there is a sentiment that there is authentic camaraderie and affection from Barack Obama, and that is returned. Or, to put it like Michael Steele might, "real recognizes real."

And that was a real moment. Just for a moment, Barack Obama dropped the cool visage and let his genuine emotion over Steele's insulting caricature shine through. Y'know, Steele said on television about a month ago that he thought the president had a level of personal animosity towards him. I agree with him. I think Obama takes Steele very personally. However, what the RNC chair fails to realize is why he gets under Obama's--and many other black folks'--skin the way that he does. (Upon hearing the comments, Steele allegedly said, "It's always good to get a shout-out," which, well, just makes my head hurt.) They may disagree politically, but it seems to me that the message to Steele is simply that he needs to conduct himself with more dignity and poise if he wants to reach people, otherwise you become the butt of a joke and, boy, if there's one thing a real dude hates it's a buffoonish Negro. Unfortunately, this moment, which revealed some of the president's humanity and could be a learning opportunity for Steele, is about to be quickly forgotten because of some of the other comments. Although, I must admit, those Rush Limbaugh jokes were funny.

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Tags: obama, michael steele, wanda sykes

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