CHICAGO - Mike Terry is black, and he knows that a black man giving someone a fist bump is not news. He also knows that calling a man’s wife his “baby mama” is derogatory, and that no self-respecting black person he has ever met would use the term “whitey,” even if they wanted to insult a white person.
That’s why he rolls his eyes at the news media’s recent coverage of Barack and Michelle Obama. He calls it “typical,” emblematic of the gap in understanding between black and non-black America.
“The brother is black, and he can’t throw up a fist?” asked Terry, a Chicago bill collector. “That’s what we do.”
Though Obama has tried to make his skin color an ancillary element of the campaign, the issue of race continually swings front and center, with the predominantly white news media taking on the often-awkward role of interpreting black culture for the masses.
Take, for example, the fist bump Obama gave his wife before officially declaring victory in the Democratic primary campaign. Early news reports of the bump sparked interest on the Internet, so more reporters jumped on the story, and it took on a life of its own. At the height of the frenzy, the fist bump was bizarrely described on Fox News as a “terrorist fist jab.”
Even to some non-black voters, this all seemed like overkill, revealing a distinct disconnect between the media and the black community, where a fist bump is as common a gesture as a high-five.
“It’s a disconnect that should be expected,” said Sherrie Mazingo, a recently retired University of Minnesota journalism professor who studies race and the media. “The mainstream media doesn’t know how to accommodate coverage of a black presidential candidate. They don’t know how to reconcile this candidacy with their generally limited knowledge of people of color, and black people especially.”
At the same time, the non-black public’s ignorance of certain elements of African-American culture has at times pushed news coverage.
When controversial video of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. appeared on the Internet, it became clear that a wide swath of non-black Americans were wholly disconnected from a preaching style common in certain black churches, and unaware of the anger and frustration that persist in parts of the black community.
The public fervor drove the media to report exhaustively on Wright and his connection to Obama. But even within the media, there was confusion as to how much coverage the story deserved, how best to explain the maelstrom of complex religious and racial issues involved, and when to decide it was time to move on.
Watching the whole mess unfold was a bit discouraging for Velma Johnson. She runs a community garden in the North Lawndale section of Chicago, and each summer she hires about a half-dozen neighborhood teenagers to tend a neatly mulched splash of bushes and blossoms.
Johnson thinks her kids can benefit from perspiration, which she provides, and inspiration, which she thinks can come from Obama’s candidacy. But what her young charges are seeing on television and in newspapers, she said, is a stream of campaign stories about “silly things.”
A Fox News graphic crudely identifying Michelle Obama as “Obama’s Baby Mama.” Baseless allegations that Michelle Obama once used the term “whitey.” The possible racial symbolism of a black and white dress Michelle Obama wore on a TV show.
Johnson has waited all her life to see a black person with a real chance of becoming president. But she figured that when the time came, that candidate would be scrutinized as a person, not as a black person.
“It seems to me that the media is surprised that there’s a black man qualified to run,” said Johnson, 40. “So now they feel like they have to dissect every little thing he does.”
Her sister-in-law, Maretha Johnson, who also works in the garden program, said she fears the racialized coverage of Obama is clouding what really matters.
“I think Obama’s stances on the issues are enough to report on without getting into these ridiculous things like fist bumps and dresses and whatever,” she said, shaking her head.
For years, newspapers and television networks have worked to diversify their staffs, and there certainly are people of color covering Obama’s campaign. But white reporters and editors still make up a majority of most newsrooms, including the one at the Chicago Tribune.
Many experts believe the media were caught off guard by Obama’s rapid political ascension and are now struggling to define such a high-profile candidate of color receiving almost around-the-clock coverage.
“There’s something about this campaign where people have a question mark and they’re just trying to decide where to put it,” said Felix Gutierrez, a professor who studies social diversity in the media at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication. “Is it on his name? Is it the religion? Is it the flag lapel pin? It’s just one thing after another. They keep trying to pin some label that might give them an understanding as to what’s behind this person.”
And much of that, he said, falls on the fact that reporters covering the campaign have never had to focus on an African-American at this level of politics: “You need reporters who have the background and the experience who can judge what is a meaningful thing to follow up on.”
Take the flap over baseless rumors launched on the Internet that Michelle Obama once used the term “whitey.” Martha Biondi, an associate professor of African-American history at Northwestern University, said even if a black person wanted to offend a white person, he wouldn’t rattle off such an archaic word. Its use now is either intentionally ironic or, in the hands of certain entertainers, comedic.
“This is not common slang in the 21st century,” she said. “It’s like something from a character on a TV show in the 1970s, something that made people laugh. It’s absurd to think someone would use a term like that.”
None of the campaign trail absurdities has surprised Jesse Jackson, whose two presidential runs in the 1980s provide the only historical comparisons to what Obama is experiencing. But there are inherent differences between Jackson’s campaigns and Obama’s current run.
First, few ever considered Jackson a candidate likely to win the election.
More important, Jackson’s own celebrity in many ways overshadowed his race. Most Americans knew him and had made up their minds about him as a person long before he sought the presidency. He wasn’t just a black man running for president - he was Jesse Jackson.
Obama, on the other hand, started as a relative unknown. Few knew what to think of him at first, and that led many to immediately focus on the color of his skin.
Jackson worries when the media view the Obamas through a racial lens and naively overinterpret or mischaracterize certain comments or actions. But he applauds Obama’s skill at brushing off such coverage as examples of the “silly season.”
“I think people are mature enough to see through it,” Jackson said. “I think this election is going to come down to $4 a gallon for gas and $4 a gallon for milk. I think this is going to come down to people dying in Iraq. I think the substance is working.”
As for the fist bump, Jackson chuckled and proclaimed it more a matter of pragmatism than race.
“I bump fists with people because it’s more sanitary,” he said. “You can’t catch a cold so easily that way.”