It’s a question many Americans seemingly have tried to avoid answering, like a truth they don’t want to confront: Does race play a role in how people view President Obama? According to Oprah Winfrey, the answer is definitely yes.
“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,” the media mogul told the BBC during an interview about her movie, The Butler, and modern racism in America. “Has it ever crossed my mind? It’s crossed my mind probably as many times as it’s crossed your mind. Probably, it’s crossed my mind more times than it’s crossed your mind,” she answered when asked if she ever thought that the President was treated any differently because he’s Black.
“Just the level of disrespect. When the Senator yelled out, ‘You’re a liar,’ remember that?” Winfrey asked, referring to South Carolina Republican Representative Joe Wilson’s breach of decorum when President Obama addressed a joint session of Congress in September 2009.
That disrespect is shown to the President and his position is a bigger indication that America is not yet in a post-racial society, according to Winfrey. “As long as people can be judged by the color of their skin,” she said, “the problem is not solved.
“It would be foolish to not recognize that we have evolved and that we’re not still facing the same kind of terrorism against Black people en masse as was displayed with the Scottsboro Boys. It’s gotten better, [but] are there still places where people are terrorized because of the color of the skin, the color of their Black skin? Yes.
“There’s a whole generation,” she continued, “there are still generations of older people who were born and bred and marinated in it, in that prejudice and racism. And they just have to die.”
The Impact of Race in Politics
Even before Winfrey’s interview aired, another journalist brought up the issue of race in politics using a different example. “People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York—a white man married to a Black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts—but not all—of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all,” wrote Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, bringing up the kind of moot points (McCray’s comments about being a lesbian came 20 years ago) that show American discomfort with diversity in politics.
In a recent ABC News poll, only 23 percent of Americans thought having more diversity in Congress would be good for the country, further demonstrating that uneasiness.
Conservative pundits jumped on Winfrey’s comments. Radio host Rush Limbaugh took to the offensive on the airwaves, pointing out that race was not a stumbling block to Winfrey’s own success. “If Black people in this country are so mistreated and so disrespected, how in the name of Sam Hill did you happen? Would somebody explain that to me? If there’s a level of disrespect simply because he’s Black, then how, Oprah, have you managed to become the—at one time—most popular and certainly wealthiest television personality? How does that happen?”
Winfrey, however, has faced her own racist incidents—including being profiled while shopping, an issue that has made headlines recently because of lawsuits against Barneys New York, Macy’s and Alexander McQueen.