Is the President of the United States acting uppity?
Maybe that’s it. Maybe in the minds of Barack Obama’s bigoted opponents it’s one thing to elect a black guy, to have him break the barrier and take a seat in the front of the bus – but it’s quite another thing if he carries on like he actually deserves it.
Perhaps this explains the behavior of people like Marilyn Davenport, the GOP official in Southern California who sent colleagues an e-mail with Obama’s face superimposed on the image of a chimpanzee. Telling was Davenport’s non-apologetic follow-up:
“We all know a double standard applies regarding this president,” she wrote. “I received plenty of e-mails about George Bush that I didn’t particularly like, yet there was no ‘cry’ in the media about them.”
Yes, of course. Bush isn’t black, but if he were he’d know his place. He wouldn’t go off acting uppity.
For all the epithets thrown at black Americans, “uppity” qualifies as one of the more offensive terms spewed during the 1950s and early 60s. It underscored the fact that even as blacks struggled to achieve equal rights, they continued to be denied their dignity.
As invoked back then, it was confirmation that law provided only technical guarantees; emotional discrimination persisted long after civil rights were granted. Blacks were expected to know their place.
Bill White, the acclaimed baseball player, broadcaster and executive, has chosen the word “Uppity” as the title of his new book about being a black athlete during an era when Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby had broken the barriers, but the walls of prejudice remained. White saw baseball and society from many perspectives – as a star first baseman with the Cardinals, Giants and Phillies; a broadcaster with the Yankees, and president of the National League.
In 1959, when White found himself languishing on the Giants’ depth chart behind future Hall of Famers Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey, he asked to be traded. Chub Feeney, a top executive on the club, said White was “uppity” for daring to make such a request.
Uppity? According to White, “It’s a person, especially someone of a different color, who says, ‘Hell no’ and stands his ground.”
This uppity factor is why the looming presidential campaign of 2012 is likely to be so vicious, regardless of whom the Republicans come up with as a candidate. Many Americans, for whom racism lies just beneath the emotional surface, believe denying the nation’s first black president a second term is more important than trying to defeat him in the first place. Term One honored the office; Term Two would honor the man.
It rankles some to see a black man stepping off of Air Force One, hobnobbing with the rich and powerful, and throwing out the first pitch. Maybe a less uppity black president would have the sense to stay out of sight, without seeming to enjoy the trappings of high office.
It has boiled over repeatedly during the Obama Presidency – from Rep. Joe Wilson’s outburst of “You lie!” during the ’09 State of the Union speech, to Donald Trump’s outrageous challenge of Obama’s very citizenship. It’s probably why Fox commentator Sean Hannity incessantly refers to Obama as “The Anointed One.”
In his memorable speech on race during the 2008 campaign, Obama spoke of his white grandmother, “a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.” People who struggle, and sometimes fail, to overcome the fear that leads to racism are nonetheless, said Mr. Obama, “a part of America, this country that I love.”
Bill White recalls playing a minor-league game in North Carolina six years after Jackie Robinson had already broken the color line with the Dodgers. For nine solid innings as he stood at his position, White heard calls of “nigger” and “coon” from the stands. As he ran off the field, he waved his middle finger in the direction of the most vulgar spectators.
Outside the stadium, he was confronted by a middle-aged white woman who poked him in the shoulder. “Boy,” she said, “you got some nerve being disrespectful to all these people.”
Bill White’s uppity all right. And if President Obama has any of that in him, it only makes him more deserving of the extraordinarily difficult position he holds.
As for the rest of us, should we tolerate much more of this? Hell no.