The State of the Union is theater, first and foremost. It is a chance for the commander-in-chief to stand before all of Congress, and more importantly, the entire nation, and effectively talk yo’ sh–. Enter former President George W. Bush and phrases like “Axis of Evil.” President Obama, one of the most gifted orators of my lifetime, understands the importance of these moments more than the majority of his predecessors. So, on the final State of the Union address, when I read that Obama may reportedly set aside convention, I was curious as to what kind of speech this might be.
Obama himself teased the address on Twitter, sounding like he was promoting his final rap album where he claimed: “I’m treating this last State of the Union just like my first – because I’m still just as hungry. I hope you tune in, because it’s for you.”
I, and Black people like me hurting in this country, are apart of that “you,” and yet, there was no mention of race and the racism still ravaging this country — notably with respect to policing. As the Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery notes, Obama did make some reference to race and policing in last year’s State of the Union, saying, “We may have different takes on the events of Ferguson and New York, but surely we can understand a father who fears his son can’t walk home without being harassed.”
However, many Black Americans rightfully still fear that we our sisters, mothers, nieces, uncles, sons, fathers, brothers may die unjustly at the hands of a police officer and there will be no consequence. These officers can kill Black children holding toy guns and nothing will happen to them. So, I’m not especially hopeful for the state of our union if the first Black president can’t explicitly detail the racism hurting Blacks in this country.
When I shared this sentiment on social media, I was met with criticism that Obama is not the “Messiah of Black people.” This is a dim viewpoint prepared by and served to people who ought to know the problem. Black people played in an integral role in Obama’s political ascension. Had Black people not switched allegiance to him during the 2008 presidential primary, we would have been watching Hillary Clinton’s last State of the Union. Had Black people – namely Black women – not voted at the levels we did in 2008 and 2012, he would not have won. Google can guide you to the data.
Another sentiment expressed was this idea that it does not matter if President Obama did not say the words “Black Lives Matter” last night. This, despite Alicia Garza, who helped found Black LIves Matter, being in attendance. Again, the SOTU is about theater and talking points, so yes, it’s perfectly reasonable to wonder why some things are ignored over others. No other constituency is told that the president is not their savior or that what’s important to them is deservingly played down. Even if some people choose to diminish us, I will never elect to do so.
Funny enough, Obama expressed disappointment over not being able to solve the rise of partisanship in Washington. What’s interesting about that is he is so bothered by his inability to fix the partisanship in DC, though a lot of that is rooted in the racism he doesn’t address directly.
What Obama did make references to with respect to bigotry, though, is the current Islamophobia spearheaded by Republican presidential frontrunner, Donald Trump. “When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer,” Obama said.
Obama went on to add, “That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. And it betrays who we are as a country.”
In the Republican response to Obama’s remarks, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley also took shots at Trump, “There’s a tendency to falsely equate noise with results. Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference. That is just not true. Often, the best thing we can do is turn down the volume.”
However, when you look at her comparing the reaction to the Charleston massacre to the civil unrest in cities like Ferguson and Baltimore, it’s clear Haley is advocating that people put their megaphones down in favor of dog whistles.
Haley said: “We didn’t have violence, we had vigils. We didn’t have riots, we had hugs. We didn’t turn against each other’s race or religion; we turned toward God. We removed a symbol that was being used to divide us, and we found a strength that united us against a domestic terrorist and the hate that filled him.”
Haley’s contempt for the disenfranchised exercising their constitutional rights to protest state sanctioned violence speaks volumes. As does the reaction of conservatives like Ann Coulter who heard Haley’s remarks and tweeted in response: “Trump should deport Nikki Haley.”
In sum, the first Black president of the United States opts not to explicitly address the ongoing state sanctioned violence against Black people, and his Republican detractor, “Nikki” Haley, born Nimrata Randhawa, chastises minorities for their righteous anger over it.
And while one plays coy about the obvious and the other pretends a simple prayer will cure America’s greatest sin, they both take shots at the only one being completely forthright about his feelings about race and religion: the angry white man.
State of the union indeed.