Obama has a provocative and ultimately progressive history of thinking and talking about race. Nevertheless, I have at some points found his rhetoric disappointing. Obama's first public statement after the Trayvon Martin seemed like some sort of pacification, for example. (More on that in this blog post.) And despite the fact that his subsequent remarks regarding the Martin shooting appeased me as a result of the fact that he explained why many people of color have become so angry regarding the verdict, I still feel the need to listen very carefully when the President discusses race. And not because I think he's racist. Rather, I am always attempting to discover exactly what his ideological slant is with respect to important matters like white supremacy and the role it plays in pervading the sociopolitical, cultural, economic, and political spheres. Here are some reflections from another piece I wrote somewhere else a while back:
While it seems clear that race is not the only issue haunting the psyche of America and its citizens, the perpetuity of problems between people of color and whites remains indigenous to the fabric of the country. This becomes evident when one considers several realities including but not limited to the fact that the unemployment rate for African-Americans is twice as high as that for Caucasians. While many argue that Obama is not making the issue of race as central as he should, the fact that he placed a telling painting in a hall right outside the Oval Office seems to suggest that the president is thinking about race.
That Obama is cognizant of racial issues has become evident on innumerable occasions. In a speech before the NAACP, he gave an important speech which included references to the Civil Rights Act, Brown vs. Board of Education, Jim Crow, lynchings, and the genius of W.E.B. Dubois. Making his own views about race plain, he defined segregation as a stain and slavery as sin. But according to various media reports, Obama has made a more private statement about race by placing Norman Rockwell's "The Problem We All Live With" in a hallway outside the Oval Office. As many progressives know, this painting depicts the trials and tribulations experienced by 6-year-old African-American Ruby Bridges during the court-ordered integration of a New Orleans elementary school in 1960. The iconography-which includes a tomato splattered against a wall that was likely aimed at the young woman of color-emphasizes the hostility African-Americans were subjected to as many members of the white community kept the legacy of hate alive. In addition to the tomato, the wall that serves as the background of the painting depicts the odious and offensive "n" word. Ideologically, both the tomato and the term upon the wall signify the perpetual attempt of racist whites to confine blacks to a scatological and subordinant sphere. Together, the images and ideas made evident through the painting resonate within the hearts and minds of all those interested in discussing the perpetuity of inequality in education and other sociopolitical spheres.
Although many postmodernists can accurately argue that Rockwell's painting has multiple, intersecting, or mutually exclusive meanings, it does seem that Obama is making a statement about the long history America has of precluding people of color from gaining power through the use of educational resources. Moreover, the fact that Obama placed the painting depicting this problem in the White House may indicate that he plans to use his political power to address the issue. Perhaps his use of this ocular signifier will remind us all that the race towards equality in education has not yet been won.