Sesame Street and President Barack Obama have two things in common when it comes to managing public discourse. In the 1960s, the popular television show was accused of promoting socialism because it taught children how to share. Now, the president is being called a communist for encouraging students to stay in school.
These are just two examples of how seemingly innocuous rhetoric can metamorphose into a controversy of national proportions. While commentators railed the debate as “silly,” some experts say the issue is an articulation of racial fears.
African-American political expert Ronald Walters says race and politics are the two issues behind the contention.
“I’ve never seen something like this when a president wanted to speak to children and there was any kind of noticeable opposition,” Walters says. “With an African-American president there are going to be some firsts.”
The back-to-school address had school districts around the country asking — for the first time for many—whether to allow students to hear their country’s leader speak. In some states, like Texas, schools opted out completely from airing the speech or interrupting the school day for the live webcast.
“You wouldn’t have this if [former President Bill] Clinton wanted to talk to school children even though at that time we were an ideologically divided country,” Walters says.
Former presidents like Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush — all of whom made similar speeches—are viewed as father-like figures and putting Obama in that role makes some Americans nervous. That’s because, Walters says, Obama is perceived as an outsider to the mainstream white culture.
University of Maryland American Studies Associate Professor Sheri Parks says whereas Reagan was like a grandfather to the nation; Obama represents a younger, cooler father figure that collides with stereotypical “bogeyman” archetypes of the young black male.
But Joel Gomez, associate professor of educational leadership at The George Washington University, says trying to explain or understand public reaction to this episode can be problematic because it could be interpreted in various ways.
On one hand public education is a local enterprise that is run by states and communities, he says, and apparent meddling from the government is historically unwelcome. Similarly, people were concerned that the content of the speech was merely an attempt to recruit future voters.
But dropout rates around the country paint a dismal landscape for the future and Gomez says the president’s message about personal responsibility should be welcomed by all Americans regardless of ideology.
“At the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world – and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed,” Obama told students in a speech broadcast from Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va.
“And that’s what I want to focus on today: the responsibility each of you has for your education. I want to start with the responsibility you have to yourself.”
Parks read the speech and says she is convinced Obama’s words tell a uniquely American story.
“Isn’t that the American dream story?” Parks says referring to Obama’s reference to his rise from struggles to Ivy League academia. “Isn’t this the mainstream American dream story? If we are too cynical to believe that it is still possible I don’t know what our identity is as a country.”
As an educator and parent, Gomez says he hopes the address becomes an annual exercise for future presidents to remind people about the value of education and mutual responsibility.
“The message was, ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps,’” Gomez says. “Many of us don’t have it easy but that doesn’t mean we can just give up.”
Though the Obama administration has been sensitive to racial issues—for instance running a race-neutral campaign—Walters says they were blindsided by a seemingly painless gesture and there will be more to come. But, he says, he hopes these debates will do more to shed light on the racial undertones that still pervade our society.
“It informs the American people of how deeply racialized the country really is and will hopefully cause people to be embarrassed and learn from it,” he says.
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