There was a time when Barack Obama was the go-to figure in conversations about race for most of white America.
As a 2008 presidential candidate, he riveted the populous with an exploration of the nation’s “racial stalemate.”
Those days are over, thanks largely to the popularity loss that comes with being a two-term president. And Obama hasn’t helped his own case as the nation’s racial healer-in-chief.
His beer summit, after a police officer arrested a famous black academic for breaking into his own house when he was locked out, was an embarrassing oversimplification. And Obama’s Trayvon Martin “could have been my son” comment did more to polarize people over the shooting of an unarmed black Florida teen than enlighten them.
Now, with barely two years left on Obama’s Oval Office tenure, it seems the only person white America is willing to listen to on matters of race is comedian Dave Chappelle, who just finished a sold-out, five-day run at Seattle’s Neptune Theater.
Chappelle, whose comedy provokes surgical reflection by way of blunt force trauma, has built a landmark career on probing the culture’s fixation on and repulsion of race. Among his most culturally introspective creations were that of Clayton Bigsby, a blind, black, white supremacist, an imagined reparations day for African Americans, and a 1950s-esque parody of a white family named “Niggar.”
Chappelle’s in-your-face entertainment value notwithstanding, the realization that mainstream America is more comfortable taking its racial cues from a comedian rather than its first elected biracial president should leave the nation with a gnawing sensation in the pit of its collective stomach.
Faith in satirists instead of democratically elected leaders speaks to the troubling deterioration of Americans’ faith in national institutions, and perhaps America itself. But we’ve all played a part in that depreciation.
A CBS News poll released Friday showed that American confidence in federal agencies is distressingly low. Among the departments judged fair or poor in the poll were the Veterans Affairs (66 percent), the Internal Revenue Service (65 percent) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (60 percent).
While the IRS is habitually disliked because of its tax collecting job, two departments have taken high profile hits in recent months; the VA for lax and sometimes life-threatening service, and the CDC for its handling of three reported Ebola cases in the United States.
Other institutions don’t fare any better. Congress is drawing historically low approval ratings. And the American news media, which has devolved to degrees of sensationalism only seen before in sport and tabloid entertainment coverage, is right there with federal lawmakers.
An aggregation of recent polls show 81 percent of Americans disapproving of the job Congress is doing. Meanwhile, national confidence in the news media has declined steadily for generations.
In the most recent Gallup Poll on the subject, just 22 percent of Americans have confidence in newspapers, while 18 percent have confidence in television news. The TV ranking is a disturbing point below confidence in the internet – the medium where rumor and conjecture trump vetted information seven days a week.
With more young people seeking their news from satirical shows like “The Daily Show” than mainstream TV news media, Fox News and MSNBC need to recognize that their habitual sensational programming is disrupting the fabric of America.
The vast majority of Americans find it abhorrent.
The shift in public confidence also provides a message to elected officials, or more appropriately the political parties that exacerbate and obscure civil debate to elect them. When citizens eventually turn fully on the two party system, there will be no one to blame but the parties themselves.
Already, no one trusts them.
As for loss of faith in federal agencies, there’s a mix of real need for reform – as in any bureaucracy – and a hyper critical assumption of incompetence at every turn. The delivery of basic services isn’t too much to ask for, but perfection is.
That brings me back to Chappelle and Obama. The president’s rating remains under water, with an aggregate of recent polls placing him at 42-53 approve-disapprove. In this climate, he’s more likely to discuss Ebola than race in America.
Perhaps he should take a page from Chappelle. Being outspoken about sensitive topics made the entertainer a star after an unremarkable start in show business, and just grossed him an estimated $385,000 for his five night stand in Seattle.
A thoughtfully candid Obama might find mainstream America ready to listen to its president again. The alternative is to continue the downward distrust of the leaders and institutions we ourselves have created. And that’s no laughing matter.