Over the weekend, hip-hot artist Jasiri X posted this image on his twitter feed. It’s taken from the front page of the New York Daily News’ website. Note the screaming headline and the sympathetic caption: “Accused killer Dylann Roof had one chance at a stable family life — and his abusive dad ruined it for…
By now, a lot of ink has been spilled and a whole lot of megabytes have been generated over this:
First Lady Michelle Obama confronted a protester Tuesday night after the gay rights activist interrupted her remarks at a private fundraiser.
Mrs. Obama was speaking to a crowd of about 200 people about protecting children from gun violence, when a woman at the front of the group began calling for broader federal protections for gay and lesbians in the workplace.
The gay rights group GetEQUAL identified the protester as Ellen Sturtz, one of a few activists affiliated with the organization who attended the fundraiser. GetEqual has urged the president to sign an executive order barring federal contractors from discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The young woman who accosted Michelle Obama was rude, to be sure. Now, I’m not in any position to comment on the racial dynamic here, but let’s just say I’m less than comfortable with a white woman lecturing the nation’s first African-American First Lady like that; and I’m even less comfortable with all the negative reactions to Ms. Obama’s refusal to take the young woman’s guff. Lauren Rankin has a pretty smart take on that part of the controversy here (via @ZerlinaMaxwell)–and she cites our very own Imani Gandy, which makes it extra special–while blogger Awesomely Luvvie offers her own unique (and hilarious) perspective here (via @johnvmoore).
Here’s the thing, though. Aside from the issue of race, I find the whole idea of heckling the spouse of a president to be an odd way to protest what the president has done or failed to do. In this instance, the heckler/protester was upset that Pres. Obama hasn’t yet signed a particular executive order, but she brought the issue to Michelle Obama as though she and the President are one and the same person; or, at the very least, as though Michelle Obama is nothing more than the President’s agent or alter ego.
That’s disrespectful in and of itself, and it could have unfair political ramifications as well. As a supporter of then-candidate Barack Obama in 2008, it was tempting to lay every one of Bill Clinton’s misdeeds on Hillary Clinton’s doorstep. Well, not every misdeed, of course; just the ones he committed in his capacity as president–extraordinary rendition; expanding the scope of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act; his propensity to order military strikes abroad, with or without congressional approval; signing welfare reform into law then failing to honor his promise to ameliorate its harsher effects; the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, and so forth.
But that sort of criticism wasn’t fair back then, and it’s not fair now. If Hillary Clinton wasn’t directly involved in Pres. Clinton’s policy blunders, or if she didn’t support them expressly, it was unfair to assume she agreed with those decisions or would repeat those mistakes just because she was married to him. Because she was and is her own person.
Likewise, Michelle Obama isn’t Barack Obama and isn’t responsible for what he does or fails to do. She doesn’t sign executive orders, and she’s not responsible for his failure to do so. And she most certainly isn’t anybody’s messenger.
As for the future, who knows what Michelle Obama’s political aspirations may entail; but if she chooses to run for office, she, like any candidate, should be judged on her own merits.
It’s worth noting that I agree with Ellen Sturtz’s substantive position: the President should sign an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating against LGBTQ people. Never underestimate the power of those sorts of executive orders. Affirmative action as we know it began as executive orders issued by Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and–yes–Nixon, and may never have come into existence, even in the private sector, without the actions of those presidents. But if you got a beef with the President, bring it up with the President; don’t treat his wife as though she’s merely an extension of him.