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Columnist Petula Dvorak: Issues of Race Deserve an Honest Airing

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By Petula Dvorak
Tuesday, September 15, 2009

We will never know if Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) would have screamed "You lie!" at a white president. Or if Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. would have been arrested at his home if he were white. Or if the parents who feared that President Obama was going to deliver a political address to America's schoolchildren would have felt the same way if Hillary Rodham Clinton or John McCain were giving that speech. Or if the tens of thousands of overwhelmingly white protesters on the Mall on Saturday would have assembled against a president who looked more like them.

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Many black people, who have endured experiences I can't begin to imagine, would say the answer to those questions is painfully obvious.

"Take a look at the Joe Wilson incident. There are a number of members on the Democratic side who believe George W. Bush should have been in prison, that he is a criminal, yet they didn't disrespect him that way," said Michael Fauntroy, a professor of public policy at George Mason University who specializes in race relations. "The disrespect that's going on with President Obama has race woven into it."

The overtones of race are crackling in the air whether it's a controversy over politics or pop culture.

Would Kanye West have dissed a black singer if she'd received an MTV award the way he stomped all over Taylor Swift's moment?

When our first African American president took office this year, many of us celebrated a huge milestone in this country's tortured racial history: Barriers were broken, stereotypes were shattered and history was made.

It was an especially important moment for the nation's children, who are at the age when the connection of a word to an image gets imprinted on the brain.

For my sons, the president -- the man whose job my older boy summed up as "the daddy of all the cities" -- is the face of Barack Obama.

And, of course, Obama's impact is even more profound on black kids.

Seven-year-old Alana Johnson became obsessed with national politics -- they call her "the Obama girl" at her elementary school -- because she could relate to Obama's daughters.

"My granddaughter wanted to come to the White House to meet those girls. Imagine that, girls who look just like her living in the White House," said Joyce Jeter, who brought Alana to the nation's capital from Marshall, Tex., this summer.

But the conversation about race simply cannot end with pride and platitudes and any thought that we can pat ourselves on the back and declare that we're done with this race thing now, let's move along.


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