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Media Notice an Elephant in the Room

The media are belatedly acknowledging a racial subtext to many anti-Obama protests, thanks to what one scholar calls the 'drip' factor.
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As anti-Obama protests escalated over the past six months, race largely remained an unspoken subtext in media coverage — "the elephant in the room," in the words of NBC News' Mark Murray. But in recent days, many prominent members of the press have begun pointing at the pachyderm.

Sunday's New York Times featured both a Maureen Dowd column asserting "some people just can't believe a black man is president and will never accept it" and a Barbara Ehrenreich essay describing "white racial resentment loosely described as a populist revolt." On Monday, the Web site Politico reported on African Americans perceiving a racial component in the anti-Obama rhetoric, and on, Joan Walsh — one of the few journalists to bring up this subject earlier — wrote that the president is being "blackened" in both senses of the word.

Why is it suddenly acceptable to talk about hidden racial resentment as a motive for verbally assaulting the president, and/or fearing the policies he will enact? Hemant Shah, a professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, uses a chemical process as an analogy.

"I don't know what the process is called when you put chemicals into a beaker, and one last drop shifts the color of the liquid," he says. "I think it's been dripping since the campaign, when Palin's rallies were getting hateful. The language wasn't quite racial, but you had people coming to those rallies carrying Curious George dolls. I think it then built up over time."

The drip that changed the tone of the media coverage occurred Sept. 9, when South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson, a conservative Republican, interrupted President Obama's speech to Congress on health care reform by yelling out "You lie!" In Shah's view, that moment provoked widespread suspicion within the media that the fact Obama is both the first black president and the first president to be treated with this particular form of disrespect was not a coincidence.

"Historically, race is discussed [in the public sphere] in subtle ways — in terms of economic threats or moral deficiencies or health threats," says Shah, who teaches a class on mass media and minorities. In his view, underlying racial bias gets revealed when two or more ideas come together at the same moment and are connected rhetorically.

In this case, the first black chief executive is also the first in modern history to have the legality of his presidency questioned. Asserting the Obama administration is unconstitutional because he was born in Kenya is "not quite" overt racism, "but it's close," Shah says — a revealing confluence of concepts.

"Then this Wilson incident comes along, and the commentators come along and say, 'Race might be a factor,'" he notes. "All of a sudden, it's out in the open."

Shah — who acknowledges the protesters have legitimate policy differences with the administration — is pleased that the racial subtext of the current discontent is finally being discussed. "The more out in the open it is, the more people get used to talking about it, which hopefully leads to a point where the differences don't matter," he said. "When you repress them, the differences become much more magnified."

He believes the media does a service when it hosts "an honest discussion about race," as CNN's Soledad O'Brien did in her "Black in America" series. In those reports, "You had a white person saying, 'I feel this way about living next to a black person,' and a black person saying, 'This is how I feel when I walk into a restaurant.' I'd like to see this sort of thing as a continual, ongoing discussion."

"For the media to deal with race effectively, the best way to do it is on the local level," he adds. "I tell my students that's where the action is and talk with them about how to address it [as journalists]. Race relations happen locally — on the street, in a restaurant, on the bus."

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