Think you know the real Barack Obama? The McCain campaign has no idea who he is or what his plans are for America. Baltimore City Paper columnist Vincent Williams believes “unknown” is code for “other.”
Artist: Juana Molina
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR’s On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. [CLIP]: WOMAN: Who is Barack Obama? [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s a question asked repeatedly in the waning days of this election season by the McCain campaign. Millions have been watching Obama, studying Obama for nigh on to 20 months, but the McCain campaign says that we don't know him, and that makes him - [CLIP]: WOMAN: Too risky for America. [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Vincent Williams writes the Social Studies column for The Baltimore City Paper, and he’s been writing about what many claim is the subtext for this charge of “unknowability,” that Obama is unknowable to some Americans because Obama is black. Vince, welcome to the show. VINCENT WILLIAMS: Thank you. Thank you for having me. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what do you think these ads are trying to do? VINCENT WILLIAMS: Well, I think they're trying to really feed into this notion that even though Barack Obama has been on the public stage, generously, two years, certainly since 2004, that there’s still something unknown about him. BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do you think race plays into this idea of Obama as “the other”? VINCENT WILLIAMS: Well, I think oftentimes when you’re addressing issues of race, “unknown” is just code for “other” so that no matter how much information you may have about a black person, they are still unknown.
Conversely, Sarah Palin who, a couple of months ago, when she was introduced, almost immediately code was being put forth that she’s one of us, she’s a hockey mom, she’s regular – when we really knew not much about her. Even at this point, I don't know how much we know about Sarah Palin and, frankly, I don't know how much it matters to people. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And one thing we do know about Palin is that she’s been the “pit bull with lipstick,” spreading far and wide this notion that Obama is not like us. SARAH PALIN: This is not a man who sees America as you and I do. BROOKE GLADSTONE: She’s said that at campaign event after campaign event. And we have a video – we got it from YouTube this week – it was a cameraman who went around at a Palin rally asking people - [CLIP]: CAMERAMAN: When’s the first time you heard of Sarah Palin? WOMAN: About a month and a half ago. CAMERAMAN: When’s the first time you heard of Barack Obama?
WOMAN: About a year ago. CAMERAMAN: But you do believe you know Sarah Palin better than Barack. WOMAN: I think there’s been a lot more personal interviews with Sarah than there has been with Barack. CAMERAMAN: When’s the first time you heard of Sarah Palin? WOMAN 2: This year. CAMERAMAN: This year. When’s the first time you heard of Barack Obama? WOMAN 2: This year.
CAMERAMAN: You’re sure about that? WOMAN 2: Yeah. CAMERAMAN: ‘Cause he’s been running for president for two years. WOMAN 2: I’m not familiar with him. [END CLIP] VINCENT WILLIAMS: What is most interesting about that video is just how visceral the dislike is for Barack Obama. I know at one point the cameraman asked one of the women at the rally, do you think Obama is a terrorist? [END CLIP] CAMERAMAN: Do you think he’s a terrorist? [OVERTALK] WOMAN: Definitely. WOMAN: Yes. He’s got the bloodlines. CAMERAMAN: What does that mean? WOMAN: Just think about it, just the name. [END CLIP] VINCENT WILLIAMS: It really does get to the level of biology. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, back in June, the neoconservative magazine The Weekly Standard said, quote, “It is a sure bet that the GOP will try to paint Obama as ‘the other,’ as a haughty black intellectual who has Muslim roots.”
And you wrote in your column in The City Paper that you were sort of bitterly amused by some of the strategies Team Obama has had to employ over the past few months to counter those impressions. VINCENT WILLIAMS: I call it the “Norman Rockwell strategy.” If you look at the convention in totality - BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Democratic National Convention. VINCENT WILLIAMS: - the Democratic National Convention, the message shifted from “change” to “he’s regular.” So much time was spent talking about Barack Obama’s biography as a father and as the husband and as part of the community, and if you look at the amount of time that Michelle and his daughters spent on camera and on stage with him: [CLIP]: BARACK OBAMA: You are unbelievable. And – MICHELLE OBAMA: Thank you. BARACK OBAMA: - you also look very cute. SASHA OBAMA: Thank you! [CHEERS AND APPLAUSE] MICHELLE OBAMA: That’s Sasha. BARACK OBAMA: And, and listen, I - [END CLIP] VINCENT WILLIAMS: I thought it was very much part of the strategy to have America accept him. There’s no room for a black man on a national stage to be a rascal, like Bill Clinton. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Not to mention the pregnant teenage daughter?
VINCENT WILLIAMS: There certainly could not be a pregnant teenage daughter anywhere near Barack Obama. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You said that during this whole brouhaha lately over Barack’s “otherness,” you happened to be watching an old DVD of the second season of The Cosby Show. You saw some parallels there. VINCENT WILLIAMS: I think one of the revolutionary things, certainly about the first two or three seasons, was that it really was plotless. It was almost a documentary of black normalcy. But because we had never seen that before, it was revolutionary.
And one of the continuing challenges for African-Americans, and particularly the African-American middle class, is to be seen as run of the mill. That is the revolutionary brass ring, right there. BROOKE GLADSTONE: This campaign soon will be history. How do you think it’s contributed to what we in the media like to call the national conversation about race? VINCENT WILLIAMS: I think we're all a lot more articulate about race, and I think that’s going to be a conversation, in particular, that’s going to continue, regardless of what happens in the election.
There will be this ongoing engagement into what does it mean that Sarah Palin is invited to the club immediately and Barack Obama worked so hard to? You know, what does that say about our definitions of normal?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Vince, thank you very much. VINCENT WILLIAMS: Oh, thank you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Vincent Williams writes the Social Studies column for The Baltimore City Paper. [CLIP]: [CROWD HUBBUB] SENATOR JOHN McCAIN: In short, who is the real Barack Obama? [CROWD SHOUTS]