The Source Of The Beef

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I was listening to NPR this morning and heard them discussing the Politico article on Obama's "dogwhistling." They quoted the following:

On matters of racial identity, many observers in the African-American community say he benefits from what's known as "dog-whistle politics."His language, mannerisms and symbols resonate deeply with his black supporters, even as the references largely sail over the heads of white audiences.

The last part. That's the problem. Sorry guys, I missed that. It's one thing to talk about Obama's ownership of certain African-Americanisms, and then note the particular joy that black folks get out of hearing them deployed. It's quite another to argue that white audiences--en masse--"don't get it." I don't I'm qualified to speak on that. Nor, probably, is Henderson. The fact that the mannerisms have a special resonance for black people, is clearly true--we simply have never had a president who talked like our cousins, uncles, brothers and fathers. That isn't true for most white people. But the idea that it "sails over the heads of white audiences" assumes too much.

It certainly sailed over the heads of the acolytes of Tim Russert (no disrespect). And you could probably say it sailed over the head of most White House reporters, and most people who work at Politico. But elite Washington reporters are a special breed---overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly middle-aged, and--most importantly--overwhelming susceptible to thinking right in the middle of the box. I can understand not wanting to be lumped in with those guys.

One last note. I've noticed something interesting about this blog--the complaints I hear from whites ("Don't lump as all together!" We're not a monolith!") have an eerie familiarity. I don't think it's cool to simplify anyone, ever. But I would ask that we all take a moment and think about how it feels for this to be the conflict of your life, to constantly labor under the weight of idiots who you've never met. What if very few people ever cared to sort you out? What if the generalizations which raised your hackles in Henderson's article weren't a one-off--they were the media and really the world--as you'd always known it?

This isn't about Schadenfreude, but empathy. It's so easy to toss people into the same pot--it almost feels natural, like something elemental and evolutionary compels us to do so. My own thoughts sometimes are so dark, they make me shudder, like, "Damn son, did you really just think that? Seriously?" You can't extinguish those impulses--they're part of us. But I think there's a humanity, a divinity, in pushing past them, in being more than what evolution and ancient instincts, have made us.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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