Sometimes I think that Rush Limbaugh is the dumbest man in America. This happens whenever I take him at face value and forget that he is basically an entertainer with contempt for his audience. He will tell them anything. Last week, as if to validate my opinion of him, he went after Michelle Obama for playing the “race card” at the dedication of a museum in New York City. He described her as angry and complaining. The word he should have used was “right.”
I would even have settled for “interesting.” After all, when the first lady of the United States suggests that something’s wrong when black and other minority children feel alienated from an institution like the Whitney Museum of American Art, maybe she has reason for saying so. In fact, she was talking out of experience.
“I guarantee you that right now, there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum,” she said. “And growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I was one of those kids myself. So I know the feeling of not belonging in a place like this.”
Limbaugh was hearing none of it. The way he looks at it, Obama is not entitled to her experiences, certainly not to talk about it. “I mean, even if you’re a committed liberal, you don’t want to hear this stuff all the time,” he said. “You’re here at a museum dedication and you want to hear an angry first lady stand up and start complaining about stuff like this?” Well, yes, Rush, I do.
This is hardly the first time Michelle Obama has come under attack from white critics who infer — think about it — that she has no right being black. Sarah Palin did not like it when Obama celebrated her husband’s early success in the 2008 primaries by saying, “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country.” Sarah Palin, as far as I know, did not have a great-great-grandfather who was a slave. It makes a difference.
The conservative National Review also chided Obama for what it called “racial scolding.” It went on to argue that, in recent years, cultural institutions have gone out of their way to attract minority audiences — and without much success. (It cited figures from the National Endowment for the Arts showing blacks woefully underrepresented as museum visitors.) The magazine then preposterously blamed the problem on “the American Left” and its disparagement of “the West’s high culture” — and not on the previous century or so of implied or enforced racism. For a long time, a black kid in New York hesitated to venture below Harlem or, in Washington, down to the Mall and its feasts of museums.
I agree that sometimes Michelle Obama can come across as angry — and anger is discomforting. We venerate that empty word, closure, wanting to seal off the pain of the past and refusing it admittance to the chirpy present. This, of course, is nonsense. In her case, Limbaugh and others need only have waited until the end of the week to understand her better. At Tuskegee University, she told the graduates of that historically black institution that she wasn’t always first lady. Once, she was just like them.
She knew that many people would not always look at the graduates as the product of hard work. “Instead, they will make assumptions about who they think you are based on their limited notion of the world. And my husband and I know how frustrating that experience can be. We’ve both felt the sting of those daily slights throughout our entire lives — the folks who crossed the street in fear of their safety; the clerks who kept a close eye on us in all those department stores; the people at formal events who assumed we were the help — and those who have questioned our intelligence, our honesty, even our love of this country.”
It’s worth noting that Obama was the second presidential wife to appear at Tuskegee. Eleanor Roosevelt was there in 1941, yet another first lady denounced as angry and presumptuous and, in her case, virtually a communist. But just as Eleanor Roosevelt articulated the experiences and plight of the poor as well as racial and ethnic minorities, so does Michelle Obama articulate the black experience. If that sometimes makes others uncomfortable, it damn well should.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.
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