Sunday, May 31, 2009

The New York Times or The Onion?

Today's Gazette had a reprint of a May 2, 2009 article from the New York Times about what I'll dub the Obama Effect on Race Relations in America. The problem is that some of the article reads like something from The Onion including one laugh-out-loud quotation from some white guy. (See below.)

The New York Times article presents anecdotal evidence to conclude that relations between black people and white people are better. The reporter, Susan Saulny, quotes black people and white people who say they think things have improved. Yet she plays down the most relevant nugget of actual information about the rise in the number of hate groups.

Saulny reports that: "In dozens of interviews in seven states over the last several days, black men and women [...] said they were feeling more optimistic about race relations than even a year ago."

One does get a sense of the optimism from the black people being quoted. But the quotations from some of the white people are unintentionally funny. I wonder whether the person even exists or whether some copy editor had some fun with the article.

Northeast of Los Angeles, M. J. J. Schmidt, 62, a real estate executive who is white, said he also felt something different.

“I go to a gym where there are a number of black people,” Mr. Schmidt said. “We don’t often communicate. They tend to have their own circle of friends. But now, there’s been more communication. Now you have an opener. After the election, I started saying hello. I said, ‘Hey, what do you think of Obama, about our new president?’

So, Mr. Schmidt, who admits that he doesn't usually talk to black people at the gym, walks up one and asks what he thinks about Barack Obama. This reminds of every comedy movie where some non-waspy gal is having dinner with the parents of her new boyfriend and they ask innocently offensive questions (see My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Meet the Fockers, etc.) having to do with her race/religion/national origins. I can imagine some Parti Québécois cabinet minister meeting with ultra-Orthodox Jews and after a moment saying with complete sincerity, "Hey, what do you think of Jerry Seinfeld?"

My point is this: There is more to the black guy at the gym than the fact he is black. Maybe he's an accountant. Or a postman. Or a real estate agent. But asking for his thoughts on Obama is like saying to him, "I only see you in a one-dimensional way so I'm going to ask questions related to that one dimension."

(Schmidt was a in a gym, remember. You can ask someone for a spot or ask their advice on how to do some exercise. There are lots of ways to interact with people without mentioning Barack Obama.)

Perhaps it's a generational thing. I wouldn't call The Gazette to announce that I had spoken with a black guy because it's not really newsworthy. And that's my problem with this New York Times article. It purports to show that things are getting better. But all it says to me is that things must be pretty bad if a reporter thinks that Mr. Schmidt's (unintentionally-offensive but deliciously-humorous) interaction at the gym is an example of positive race relations.

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