Five little words — “I forgot he was black” — have caused a furor in the United States and exposed a contradiction in the idea that it has become a post-racial nation since electing its first black president last year.
The comment came from television host Chris Matthews after President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech last Wednesday.
“He is post-racial, by all appearances,” the liberal host of MSNBC said on the air. “I forgot he was black tonight for an hour. You know, he’s gone a long way to become a leader of this country, and past so much history, in just a year or two. I mean, it’s something we don’t even think about.”
The staunch Obama supporter meant it as praise, but it caused a rapid furor, with many calling the quote a troubling sign that blackness is viewed — perhaps unconsciously — as a handicap that still needs to be overcome.
Apparently, Matthews forgot to ask black people if they WANT to be de-raced.
“As a black American I want people to remember who I am and where I come from without attaching assumptions about deficiency to it,” said Dr. Imani Perry, a professor at Princeton’s Center for African American Studies.
Although she thought Matthews was well-intentioned, she found his statement troubling, because “it suggests that if he had remembered Obama’s blackness, that awareness would be a barrier to seeing him as a competent or able leader.
“The ideal is to be able to see and acknowledge everything that person is, including the history that he or she comes from, as well as his or her competencies and qualities, and respect all of those things,” Perry said.
That’s a very different vision of “transcending race” — a consistent theme of Obama’s political history — than one in which race has disappeared altogether.
“It’s important for us to remember that everyone has a race,” said Blair L.M. Kelley, an associate professor of history at North Carolina State University. “When you say we’re going to transcend race, are white people called on to transcend their whiteness?”
“When (black people) transcend it, what do we become? Do we become white?” she asked. “Why would we have to stop being our race in order to solve a problem?”
Matthews didn’t get that far down the post-racial road on Wednesday night. But his comments instantly exploded online, especially on Twitter. Ninety minutes later, he clarified his comments on the air.
“I’m very proud I did it and I hope I said it the right way,” Matthews said, noting that he grew up in the racially fraught 1960s.
“I walked into the room tonight, you could feel (racial tension) wasn’t there tonight and that takes leadership on his part, to get us beyond those divisions, really national leadership,” Matthews said.
“I felt it wonderfully tonight, almost like an epiphany. I think he’s done something wonderful. I think he’s taken us beyond black and white in our politics.”
Plenty of people supported Matthews on Thursday, saying his sentiments, although poorly worded, reflected the view that all Americans are now equal.
But for many blacks, it was hard to forget the word “forgot.”
Kevin Jackson, a black conservative and author of “The BIG Black Lie,” hews to the philosophy that people should be judged on their merits, not their color.
Yet Jackson does not want his blackness to be forgotten.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “Because we have an amazing history.”
Sophia Nelson, a black attorney, former lobbyist and founder of PoliticalIntersection.com, which focuses on politics, race and gender, said she has been offended by people calling her articulate and intelligent: “That’s saying that people who look like me normally aren’t those things.”
She said Matthews’ comment showed the same unconscious bias as those by Vice President Joe Biden when he was still a senator that Obama was “clean” and “articulate,” and Sen. Harry Reid’s saying that Obama was more electable because he was light-skinned and lacking a “Negro dialect.”
“Matthews was saying exactly what he meant,’’ Nelson said. “He forgot he was black because he’s so articulate and so compelling.”
Another common interpretation of Matthews’ comment was that if he forgot Obama was black during his speech, it must be part of his thinking the other 23 hours of the day.
Which is not necessarily a bad thing, said Kelley, the North Carolina State professor.
“Obama is forcing people to see blackness,” she said, “in a way they haven’t had to in the past.”
Jesse Washington covers race and ethnicity for The Associated Press.