Presidential Debates: What Does Race Have to Do With It?


With Joe Biden and Paul Ryan taking the stage for the first and only vice presidential debate, attention can now be taken away from the calamity that was the first presidential debate. President Barack Obama, with his subdued and questionably lackluster performance against Republican nominee Mitt Romney, failed to show the vigor and intensity that we have become used to from our personable and engaging orator/incumbent-in-chief.

The excuses for why Obama delivered such an uninspiring performance ran the gamut from the absolutely plausible (Obama let Romney control the conversation) to the "I’m not quite sure how I feel about that one" (Al Gore mentioning that the altitude, and its omnipotent forces, adversely affected President Obama). But one in particular, by Georgetown Professor Michael Eric Dyson, about Obama and the effects of race on his performance, was probably the most interesting and thought-provoking:

Professor Dyson, a very well respected academic, writer, intellectual, and authority of all things African American, hones in on something extremely controversial. This issue of Obama and the criticism he has faced thus far as a man of color in authority has been an underlying theme that has repeatedly played itself out in the president’s first term.

And President Obama, subsequently, has had to tread rather carefully when it comes to issues of race. In a recent interview he gave with Black Enterprise, Obama made mention that he is not the president of black America, a sentiment that has drawn considerable ire from some that feel he is, in fact, the president of this very particular constituency. (Syracuse Professor Boyce Watkins’s argument is that Obama has an obligation to look out for those specific groups – including African Americans – that helped elect him in 2008.)

The fact that Obama could publicly say such a thing was rather blasphemous for some, I’m sure (especially in the black community). But this was his attempt to take race out of the public discourse critiquing his performance over the past three years. And this is where Professor Dyson and his comments, ironically, so masterly fit in. Dyson argues that Obama’s unexciting performance was Obama’s explicit attempt to not succumb to the stereotype of the “angry black man,” one especially perpetuated after the re-release of a 2007 speech Obama gave at Hampton University.

Now whether one agrees with Dyson or not, the fact that he can point to race as a fundamental reason why Obama did not do well in the first debate is very telling about how we think about race in this country – and particularly how it pertains to our president. Obama has been criticized for not being black enough and now his performance is being judged because he did not want to seem “too black,” a stereotype that has afflicted many men of color.

And as the first African American president in our nation’s history, Barack Obama has become the poster child for everything race-related. Fair or not, Obama, as the physical representation of an issue that has undoubtedly left an indelible mark on our country, reminds us that race will always be an issue that we struggle with and have to face.