Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman

Obama’s White Grandmother

Yesterday I wrote that it was the best instance of a black politician articulating the anxieties and racial resentments of whites. It’s worth reflecting for a moment on the (obvious) fact that we still refer to Obama as a black politician rather than a half-black-half-white politician. Someone with an Irish mom and an Italian dad would be described as half Irish, half Italian.
Yet someone with a black dad and white mom is described as black. His skin color defines him more profoundly in our eyes, and, to some degree, in his own mind. That’s just the way race works in America.
But on racial matters, part of Obama’s promise is not just that he’s empathetic and listens well. It’s that he can transcend race in part because he is black and his mother is white. Biography matters as much as ideas. I hate to sound horribly cruel, but if he loses the election, I can’t help but think it will partially be because his mother isn’t alive to campaign with him.
One of the most remarkable, and complex, parts of the speech was this line:


I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

Unpack that sentence. On one level, in this anecdote the grandmother is acting as a negative example — a white who caused him pain, as a black, with her words. But he’s also conveying that when he hears insulting or racial things, he goes immediately to a place of attempting to understand where it comes from, just as he had to with his own grandmother. Most important, he reminds people that he was raised by whites and felt loved by whites. While some blacks (perhaps Jeremiah Wright) may view whites as more oppressors than helpers, Obama has been nurtured, loved and treasured by whites.
But there’s a missing piece: how did having a white mother enable him to understand the anxieties of whites better? So far he’s tried to make the point simply by stating what he thought those resentments were and expressing sympathy:


And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.

But this doesn’t connect explicitly back to his own biography. We know how he felt as a black man hearing the negative stereotypes from his white grandmother. But how did having white mother and grandmother help him to identify with whites? Perhaps he feels he shouldn’t have to be this explicit. Perhaps he’s cautious about “using” his mother when she’s not here to approve or elaborate. Only he can know. But we can infer from the fact that Obama is a remarkable man, that she must have been a remarkable woman, who not only encouraged him to dream but also helped him to have a world-historic sense of empathy. I don’t think she’ d mind if he conveyed that a bit more.

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posted March 19, 2008 at 11:01 am

It was not admirable — but rather galling — that he equated the public record of his pastor with the private mutterings of the grandmother who raised him. Moreover, how do we even know that Obama gave us a truthful account of his grandmother’s racial attitudes? What corroboration do we have for his account? His grandmother — an 85-year old widow living in Hawaii — has not been made available to the press from the beginning of his Presidential campaign. Even if all that he said about her was true, how cold and heartless of him to “use” this woman as an object in his artful narrative.
What really matters here is not Obama’s views about race. Everyone knows that race relations are complicated. That’s not news.
The key question yesterday had to do with Obama’s character. Why wait all this long to finally speak out about Wright? His speech was a carefully composed reaction to campaign pressure. When he finally spoke out yesterday, Obama cast his Hamlet-like attitude towards Wright in terms of a broader national problem. Oh no, he basically told us yesterday, it wasn’t his defect of character … but a national collective guilt that is at the root of his problem. So it’s really your fault and my fault and everyone else’s fault — but not his fault.
For a while Oprah Winfrey went to TUCC — but she left a long time ago. Obama stayed put in his nice, warm pew and continued to collect “street cred.” Good for Oprah for leaving. Not good for Obama.

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posted March 19, 2008 at 1:08 pm

Thanks Steve for pointing out that he is half white. And we might also add that he is 100% American. Race issues are complicated at every level and I think Obama understands this in a really unique way that gives me hope that if he were to become president of this country that maybe it would not be as often that I hear outside my window in my urban neighborhood street fights from the kids hanging outside of the McDonalds. I don’t think he would do it by any government program. There are tons of government programs out there already– he could do it just by being a leader. No other candidate could. I think it’s perfect timing for this issue. Good that he didn’t bring it up before– that it brought itself up and he could respond– both at a personal level and a political level.

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posted March 19, 2008 at 1:47 pm

“Good that he didn’t bring this issue up before — that it brought itself up and he could respond.” Millie, this is NOT pro-active leadership. It’s reacting. We didn’t need Obama to point out the problems with race relations, just as we don’t need Steve to remind us that Obama is half-white and raised by whites. We all know these things. He only gave the speech because he was in hot water and his poll numbers were slipping.
Obama didn’t answer the essential questions: Why embrace Wright so long? Wby only now distance yourself from him? Why choose him in the first place?
What we got instead was an artful presentation that:
(1) Equated a few private and isolatet comments of the (white) woman who raised him with the public, repeated and incendiary comments of his pastor;
(2) Smeared all black churches in this country by suggesting that the difference beteen Wright and other black pastors is a difference in degree not a difference in kind; and,
(3) Changed the subject from his own behavior to the behavior of our society, substituting collective guilt for personal culpability.
This guy is good. Very good. But good for what? He’s a political leader, for crying out loud, not the vessel of all our hopes and dreams. Those kids hanging out on the street near McDonald’s where you live won’t be in the least interested in — or affected by — the election of Obama. He might fool the white liberals, but not these street-smart kids :-)

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posted March 20, 2008 at 4:11 pm

“We know how he felt as a black man hearing the negative stereotypes from his white grandmother.”
No, you don’t. You never will. You’re lily WHITE. You are the intended beneficiary of the colonialistic occidental myth of Divine Providence upon which this country was founded. You will never be an African American, or know what it feels like to walk in a black skin in this society. You will never know the white scrutiny and the disdain African Americans know to be ingrained in every area of our social discourse. You will never understand what it means to be black.
Pastor Jeremiah Wright, however, does understand the damning implication of being an African in America. He’s the living embodiment of suffering, trial, tribulation, indignity, indecency, frustration, anger, and justice denied. Just because you have caught yourself before you let the N-word pass over your lips doesn’t make you an expert on how we feel. That our voicing of our reality embarrasses and offends you in no wise negates that reality to be the truth. Pastor Wright’s only crime was inexpedience. PASTOR WRIGHT TOLD THE TRUTH! So did Obama’s grandmother. She meant no harm when telling her black grandson that she feared black men for no greater reason than they are black. Still, I know that her saying that to a black man offended him the same hearing what many of African Americans think of ‘progress’ in America from Pastor Wright hurt you.
Let’s be real with this thing. Europeans stole Africans and brought them to be slaves in a land whites had invaded, occupied, and took away from Native Nations who had owned and governed for generations. Then, for ages, they prospered from our blood, sweat, and tears. When we were finally emancipated, we became the targets of socialized derrision and castigation, a state that exists to this day. So, try not to get your drawers in a social twist when hearing from us that we are still pissed about the way the majority scorns us, given that our treatment has not much improved since you emancipated us centuries back.
Try to appreciate why we equate Obama’s grandmother’s unfounded fears of black men with Pastor Wright’s pro-black rant. For us, it’s all the same point, that point being that America’s original sin is one of malicious xenophobia and socialized bigotry, second only to 80s South African Apartheid. We still call for justice and vendication which can only be achieved when we finally open a dialogue to STOP PRETENDING that ethnically everything is fixed and alright. It’s not. And, after 8 years of Bush stupidity, things are that much worse. The Senator is right to train our attention on that elephant in our room. We need to quit acting like prejudice and bigotry have gone the way of the Whigs in an era when the Whigs are making a comeback.

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posted March 20, 2008 at 9:18 pm

He opened up about himsef, and we disected his words, turned it against him, and all but divorced him from his grandmother. I guess we like the same dishonest and closed politicians. I don’t know his relationship w/ his grandmother, but I/m not gonna try to argue that he does not love her enough.

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posted March 21, 2008 at 9:52 pm

Obama did state why he is still a member of his church and why he still considers Wright to be a friend and a mentor. Moses was a very complex man, far from perfect. How about David and Samuel? Abraham? Peter also had his problems with denying his relationship to Jesus, if I remember the story correctly. Obama simply stated that, he values the whole of a very complex man, and the good works that he has accomplished through his ministry.
“He contains within him the contradictions – the good and the bad – of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.” from Obama’s Philadelphia speech.
As to Obama’s grandmother…my family is multi-racial. It is funny to see how all that African-American, English,French, Irish, Cherokee, Finnish and German genes have mixed in the third generation. I’m curious to see how the great grandkids, nieces and nephews will be identified in the years to come.
However…Obama’s statement, she loves me, just is frightened of the stereotypical black man, rings true, based on my own personal experience. There may have been exceptions to that rule, but I haven’t met many women who didn’t feel that way, who came of age in the early part of the 20th century.
It was a good speech, long overdue.

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posted March 22, 2008 at 1:34 am

When obama speaks on race it cuts the hearts of those who still deny that there is a race problem,but if the would such there heart,and reactions to other races,they will find out that they need the help to over come this sin of bigotry. Right wing news media wil play this to there greedy coffers. I wish some of these right wingers will turn to Christ for salvation,instead of leading this nation down the path of hatred. Obama has open the door for racial dialogue. Let’s talk about it and trust in God to make it work.

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posted March 23, 2008 at 8:40 am

Obama is right about his grandmothers veiws, I was the only Black child in my class all through elementary school and was treated like crap by white folks. I was not allowed in their homes never ever was invited to their birthday parties, excluded at all school dances, just plain treated badly. White America just does not ever want to hear about how very bad they have been and indeed still are to African Americans. I went to a play and old one mind you by Toni Morrison called ‘The Bluest Eye” In one scene it showed a mother totally ignoring and even causing pain to her own daughter while fawning over her white mitresses blond blue eyed daughter. When her two nieces came to that ‘big house’ the little white girl was cringing and clutching her toys showing all signs of how fearful she was of these two Black girls and I thought to myself yeah I just bet that she grew up to be Obama’s grandmother! White people, don’t act like we don’t know you. We have been in your homes since we were kidnapped from Africa. You chose not to ‘see’ us you spoke around us like we were not even in the room, and I mean saying how vile and repulsive etc etc you thought Black people were and in the mean time being served by Polly the maid who you loved so much that she was ‘like one of the family’. Yeah except when she wanted time off to tend to her own children. Yeah Polly you can go home to you sick or dying child AFTER you do all our work you lazy girl. Oh yeah she still was a girl in their eyes and would always be treated as trash.

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posted March 24, 2008 at 1:31 am

How much more personal could Mr. Obama get with America on Tuesday? This man made it very personal by giving us the picture of hearing his own beloved grandmother express her fears to his grandfather.These are real fears in America. I am sure by Barack hearing thisand witnessing this fear from his own flesh and blood did make him cringe. This showed how much hurt he felt as he heard his grandmother express herself. After reading “Dreams from My Father,” where he speaks of this incident, you feel the love throughout his book as he speaks of his grandparents. No, he did not throw his own grandmother under the bus as many have stated these last few day, but he reached deep down into his soul to try to express the very fact that so many of us refuse to reach deep within and let the raw emotions come to the surface. Let’s talk and do something meaningful, America to heal these wounds. We Can This Time, I believe. Barack loved his grandmother then, and he still loves his white grandmother now., It is real, people. How much do we want from Senator Obama on this point? Let us not judge him , but listen to what he is calling us to do. Can we, America?

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posted March 24, 2008 at 8:59 am

I’m a african-american woman who’s been married to a white man for almost 15 years. Five (5) children were integrated into our marriage – 3 african-american, 2 white. They are all adults now. It’s not been easy to say the least. But the way of Agape Love isn’t. When my husband told his father about falling in-love with me and wanting to marry me they were sitting on his swing on his porch. The swing stopped. My father-in-law looked at my husband and said the following: “son if you had told me this 25 years ago I would had taken you to the shed and beat you and said, you could not be of my seed”; BUT, I’m a CHANGED man and I follow JESUS. If you marry this woman she will be my daughter”. And that is how he addresses me each and everytime we see each other; with a hug and a greeting of “daughter”. My father-in-law is of another generation and as such his “language” sometimes dictacts that generation. Language such as “colored” when referring to african-americans. Do I get offended…NO, because the LOVE OF CHRIST who reigns in both of our hearts covers any and all offenses. Maybe if we all worked to “get understanding” and realize that we all fall short of God’s glory, we can open our hearts and minds to a measure of truth about our past, work to make changes today, and have much hope for tomorrow. Recognizing that we all serve a purpose greater than our own has helped our family “atone” for the past, cherish the present, and have hope for the future who within our family our future consist of our grandchildren; one african-american, one white who held hands while walking the aisle of a department store shouting “we are brothers”. Is that not the way of Love? That’s what I heard from Senator Obama…the way of Love.

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