Illinois holds a noted place in American history when it comes to issues of race and ethnicity.
Abraham Lincoln represented the 7th district of Illinois in the U.S. House of Representatives before he became the President that ended slavery.
Barack Obama represented Illinois in the U.S. Senate before he became the first African-American President.
So it seems almost fitting that today, the day of the Illinois primary, the issue of race is in the news.
At an Obama fundraiser last night, actor Robert DeNiro introduced First Lady Michelle Obama by asking the crowd: “Callista Gingrich. Karen Santorum. Ann Romney. Now do you really think our country is ready for a white first lady?” When someone in the crowd yelled, “No!” DeNiro responded, “Too soon, right?”
In response to DeNiro’s words, a spokeswoman for Michelle Obama said they were “inappropriate.”
Newt Gingrich, at a campaign stop on Tuesday, asked the Obama campaign for an apology and stated, “What DeNiro said last night was inexcusable and the president should apologize for him. It was at an Obama fundraiser, it is exactly wrong, it divides the country.”
And then, in a jab at Obama’s celebrity supporters, Gingrich went on to say, “DeNiro is rich enough he probably doesn’t notice the price of gasoline.” (I don’t know the man personally, but I am pretty sure Sheldon Adelson, billionaire and multi-million dollar supporter of Gingrich’s Super PAC, probably isn’t comparison shopping gas prices either.)
In 2008, almost 150 years after a man with ties to Illinois freed African Americans, there was much discussion about whether America was ready for an African-American man, with Illinois ties, to be President. And in 2012, issues of race and society remain no laughing matter.