As you likely know already, Tagg Romney (son of Mitt and an increasingly high-profile surrogate for his father on the campaign trail) said yesterday that he would “like to take a swing at” President Obama for saying that his dad had lied.
Ok then. Let’s assume that the candidate’s son/surrogate is not going to own the fact that his dad has, in fact, peddled in inaccuracies and untruths for the entire campaign — I mean, that would be nice? But yeah. And let’s put aside the fact that Tagg went on to say that he didn’t act on his impulse because the Secret Service stood between him and the President and “that’s the process” — I believe he was joking, so “I didn’t hit the President because Secret Service woulda clocked me” is all just part of the joke. And let’s even put aside the fact that the man is 42 years old and the father of six children — he should know better than to sound like an aggrieved adolescent, but apparently he doesn’t, so there’s not a lot we can do about that.
But is he a racist? And is it inherently racist to jokingly threaten violence against this country’s first African American President?
As to the first question: I have no idea. I don’t know what’s in Tagg Romney’s heart, but I suspect that his motivation was less racist (“I think it’s funny to suggest that I’d like to beat that black man down”) and more entitled (“No one talks like that about my dad, raggle-snaggle”).
As to the second question, my personal opinion is that: No. It is not inherently racist to jokingly threaten violence against this country’s first African American President. Indeed, I’m sure there are all kinds of reasons to hate Obama that have nothing to do with his skin color, and all kinds of reasons to want to clean his clock. The itch to clean the clock of a man who happens to be black is not, by definition and unto itself, racist.
As some folks have been doing around the web today, let’s flip it: Let’s imagine that President Obama had a grown son who said in 2008 that he’d like to “take a swing at” John McCain.
Or wait. I can’t imagine that. Because it wouldn’t have happened. In no small part because if it had happened, Barack Obama would not be President today.
It seems to me that an American black man grows up learning, at every turn, to control himself and the image he presents to the world: Don’t walk out of the store without a store bag and receipt — someone might accuse you of stealing your gum. Don’t wander aimlessly outside your crush’s house — someone might arrest you. Don’t argue with an authority figure who has it all wrong — someone might shoot you. And don’t ever play to all the worst stereotypes that white people have of you — even in jest — because if you do, someone, somewhere will use it to run you into the ground. And all of this goes double if you have academic, professional, or political aspirations.
Barack Obama’s imaginary son would have learned all of this just as his father, his uncle and his friends did. He would have learned to keep his hands out of his pockets when talking to the police, and he would have learned to never use the language of violence in a radio interview. And if he were serving on his dad’s campaign, he would have come to look not unlike Theo Huxtable, in all his nonthreatening cuteness.
So I do believe that there is racism here: It’s in the society in which a 42 year old father of six with familial political aspirations on the national stage can mouth off about the Commander in Chief without thinking about it because he’s white and has never in his life had to give that sort of behavior so much as a second’s thought. And have it brushed aside by the (white) national press.
It’s a complicated kind of racism, one that involves the way I’m raising my own white son as much as it involves Tagg Romney, and thus it is the kind of racism that is most difficult to discuss. You can’t point at it, and you can’t legislate it away. It’s in the air we breathe and the water we drink.
As an exercise, stop for a minute and try to imagine any prominent African American or prominent African American’s adult child saying anything even remotely like what Tagg Romney said in a frustrated moment: Colin Powell, Cory Booker, Keith Ellison, Condoleeza Rice, Allen West, Maxine Waters. Or, God help her, Michelle Obama (of course, she’s already proven that she knows how to be careful).
Not having to think like that? That’s white privilege.