She talks. She cries. She acts.
With all of Hollywood prepared to bow down to the First Lady of Daytime Talk for her role in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Oprah is taking the opportunity to push forward her favorite narrative: America remains a deeply racist place. In an interview with The Grio, Oprah, who plays a butler’s wife in the White House in The Butler, says that Trayvon Martin, the black teenager shot by George Zimmerman, is just like 1955 murder victim Emmitt Till: “Let me just tell you, in my mind, same thing. But you can [get] stuck in that and not allow yourself to move forward and to see how far we’ve come.” She said in another interview that the “shooting of Trayvon Martin” was an example of racism.
Well, how far have we come? Oprah says, “do we live in a land where Martin Luther King’s dream has been ultimately fulfilled? No….Are more people judged by the content of their character than by the color of their skin? Yes. Is everybody judged by the content of their character? Absolutely not.”
Ignorance plays a part in Oprah’s view of racism the United States. According to Oprah, in an interview with Parade Magazine, Americans don’t know “diddly-squat” about the racial history of the United States. She then added, “I always think of the millions of people who heard that as their last word as they were hanging from a tree.” According to the Tuskegee Institute, 3,446 black Americans were lynched from 1882-1968. With a skewed numerical perspective like that, it’s no wonder Oprah likely thinks that racist killings remain plentiful across the fruited plain.
In the joint interview she did with director Lee Daniels and actor Forest Whitaker, Daniels too held onto the idea of endemic racism: “I showed the film to my relatives…because I figured they’re the harshest of audiences. And my 30-year-old nephew said to me, ‘Did some of this stuff really happen?’ And I was very upset by that.” Ignorance of history is certainly upsetting, especially sensitive racial history. But doesn’t it say something about the United States when a 30-year-old black man can’t conceive of the racism of the 1950s? Shouldn’t her nephew’s response say to Daniels, Whitaker, and Oprah that the United States has changed, thanks in large measure to the heroism of those who took part in the civil rights movement?
Instead, however, Oprah, Daniels and Whitaker continue to act as though the racial incidents portrayed in The Butler still lurk the corner in the United States. Whitaker said about Trayvon Martin, “If you can’t accept that these things are going on, you’re living an illusion.” Daniels said, “It’s a given. I can’t even get a taxi [in New York]. I send my [white] assistant out to get a taxi because I can’t.” And Oprah, who said that Daniels pitched her on the film while she was at her enormous property in Maui – in the most expensive area of the island, no less – added that “America” needs to see The Butler, presumably to remind the country of its racial bigotry.
The legacy of Oprah Winfrey could be an incredible one. She could stand up for the true dream of Martin Luther King Jr. Instead, she has chosen to continue to press forward a wildly exaggerated narrative of racism, because that’s the liberal line. And so even as she says you “cannot be my friend and use [the n-word] around me,” she told Jay-Z that she understood his use of the n-word in his lyrics: “I’m proud to say, I get it now.” Just like she “gets” Trayvon Martin.
So long as communicators like Oprah continue to focus their ire on white racism – an evil but rare phenomenon that no longer lists as a top ten problem for the black community in America – they will win Oscars. The moment Oprah starts telling the truth about race relations in America, she won’t win awards but might begin to make a positive difference.
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