The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When GOP staffer put Obama children ‘at a bar,’ it continued American tradition of trashing black females’ morality

President Obama speaks as his daughters Sasha and Malia look on before pardoning “Cheese” and his alternate Mac both, 20-week-old 48-pound turkeys, during a ceremony at the White House, on Nov. 26, 2014 in Washington, D.C. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
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In keeping with the Christian theme of her self-serving apology, Elizabeth Lauten has blessedly resigned from her post as the communications director for Rep. Stephen Lee Fincher (R-Tenn.). She had said prayer showed her the error of her ways, though one would think she would not need a higher power to tell her that trashing Malia and Sasha Obama for dress and demeanor at a turkey pardoning was not the best idea.

But tucked into the usual partisan sniping of her original Facebook comments and expected swipes at President Obama and Michelle Obama through their children was something deeply disturbing and unsettling. Her rant against the girls read, “Dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at the bar.” Let that sink in. She placed two children ages 13 and 16 in a bar, a very adult setting – a place where you can drink, flirt and, in some cities, smoke.

That’s not frivolous, but insidious. And it’s nothing new. Lauten’s mind traveled back to a disgusting place and time, when black women were disrespected, denied a spot on the pedestal of virtue white women occupied. Those views – apparently alive and well – excused the abuse and disregard of human beings judged not worthy of respect or consideration by people who prayed as hard as Lauten says she does.

In the wake of the shootings by police of Tamir Rice in Cleveland (12 years old but thought to be 20 in an officer’s report) and Michael Brown in Ferguson (18 years old and unarmed but described as “it” and “a demon”) much has been written about how African-American children are not allowed to be kids. Compared to the conclusions of those recent incidents, Lauten’s slight could be seen as minor. But the penalty of disrespect to black girls and women is another sad reality with consequences. We know that black girls are suspended at higher rates than girls of any other race or ethnicity and most boys.

I’ll bet Malia and Sasha Obama watch Disney movies, have crushes on members of boy bands and possibly still keep treasured dolls on the shelf or tucked away in a safe place. That’s how I was at that age – still just a kid in so many ways. I wore a school uniform during the week and on weekends rebelled with mini-skirts that my dad may have kidded me about but didn’t take too seriously because he knew I was a good kid.

Whether or not you agree with the president’s politics, the multigenerational, educated, high achieving Obama family has represented America well in the world. Malia and Sasha are beautiful and spirited, good students and athletes, and they clearly love their parents though they are occasionally embarrassed by them. They have joined the rest of the first family on global trips and philanthropic activities closer to home in Washington.

But that thought could not enter Lauten’s mind. Sean Spicer doesn’t get it either. While he condemned Lauten’s attack on the Obama girls, calling the comments “inappropriate and insensitive,” the Republican National Committee communications director said media’s coverage of this story was “appalling.” It’s as though neither can acknowledge that these kinds of comments come with historical baggage, created as justification for slavery and rape and continued in stereotypes of bad mothers and welfare queens. It continues, even as black women lead companies and black girls make the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Now that Lauten has some free time, she might visit the statue of Rosa Parks in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall. Parks is, of course, most known for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Ala., bus in 1955, an act that sparked a movement.

But years before, she was an NAACP activist, who formed the Committee for Equal Justice and traveled throughout the South to seek justice for black women and young girls raped and traumatized but unable to get justice from all-white juries because of societal myths about their morals, myths that took shape in the words Lauten so thoughtlessly used to label two children when she denied them respect and made them bar-hoppers.

In a recent interview with Frank Rich in Vulture, comedian Chris Rock, who is more than just funny, talked about changes in racial attitudes and how they affect his own two young girls: “The question is, you know, my kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.”

And that Lauten keeps praying.