It wasn’t very presidential for President Obama to appear on a daytime talk show like The View, cried his critics. But when Barbara Walters and the other hosts asked him about race in America, his honest response pointed a divided nation in the direction it needs to go.
President Obama visited with the five hosts of the ABC daytime talk show The View last week. People complained. He should have gone to the Boy Scout gathering instead. The office of the presidency ought to be above such a program. These complaints are nonsense. The president ought to speak to his constituents, and the viewers of The View are all people to whom he is accountable.
The women asked interesting questions about the economy, the war, andand what it says about race in America. The president was able to make his case on all of these issues. Barbara Walters asked the president about his personal identity: why he identified as African American rather than as mixed race since his late mother is European American.
In my mind the answer to Walter’s question was obvious because President Obama is literally African American, the son of an African father and an American mother. He answered that he identifies as an African American because in the African American community the reality that we all are mixed race is known and readily accepted. In one family you can find kin that is the blackest of black and the whitest of white. Racial purity is not a concern.
The concept of race itself is a social construction born of the economics of a slave system tied to racial identity. The ancient world did not know race. The human community was divided into tribes and nations. People knew themselves according to these designations. Slavery was a result of defeat in war. Conquered peoples of all tribes and nations, of all colors and physical characteristics, were slaves. Similarly, kings and queens came in all colors. The pharaohs of ancient Egypt would have been considered black in the United States. The biblical genealogy of the sons of Ham includes Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan (Genesis 10:6). Once upon a time, people used Noah’s curse upon Canaan that was misread as the curse of Ham to justify slavery.
Chattel slavery tied to race meant that if a person was of mixed race, that person remained a slave. The human being remained a commodity. To justify racial slavery, people in power argued for African inferiority. To draw and to maintain the necessary distinction, the purity of the white race became ever more important. Thus, anyone with even one drop of African blood was considered black. With the idea of racial inferiority came an inferior legal, economic, and social status.
President Obama’s answer to Barbara Walter’s question, however, took the viewers of The View to a future place where racial identity ought not to matter. We ought to treat everyone with respect, and we ought to try to see life from their perspective. This is the expanded moral imagination he called for in his Nobel Lecture. It is the essence of the Golden Rule: In EVERYTHING, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
A thought experiment. As you go through your day and encounter other human beings, do not think of their race, sex, appearance, dress, or manner, think, human being. Think, child of God. Think, my sister, my brother. When you encounter an elder, think, my mother, my father. Think, s/he is me.
Photo: ABC’s The View.