There’s been a lot of lament in the last few days about President Obama’s unusual awkwardness and silence during the debate. Romney brought his “A” game, if putting on a say-anything smarmy sales routine counts as such—which it does.
While I shared everyone’s consternation over President Obama’s failure to come out swinging, I found myself much more upset with one particular moment in the debate: when Romney says:
“Look, I have five boys. I’m used to people saying something that isn’t always true and keep on saying it hoping ultimately I will believe it.”
So. Just to be sure we have it straight. Mr. Romney claimed that he is used to dealing with people like President Obama because Obama is a lying “boy” just like Romney’s own sons.
Shocked, I sat bolt upright in my chair, asking myself, “Did Romney just call President Obama a “boy?”
We have a long history of white people calling black men “boy” in our country. The term evolved during slavery as a way of emasculating black men. By calling them “boy,” and disavowing their adulthood, slave owners robbed them of the intelligence, humanity and sexuality of a grown man. As “boys,” black men had no autonomy over their lives and no claim to their women. The black man’s status as a “boy” justified his position as dependent and beholden to a master who claimed to take care of him.
Like the “N” word, use of “boy” did not disappear with emancipation. It remained a powerful linguistic tool through Jim Crow and continues to pack a punch today.
If you watch President Obama as Romney delivers this line, there is a distinct reaction. He turns slightly towards Romney, lifts his head abruptly and inhales through his nose. For just a second, he exhibits the body language of a man rising to the challenge of a physical fight. He’s pissed.
Then he reigns it in under the mask of an awkward smile.
Here stands our intelligent and principled president, admirably keeping his composure while this big lying oaf disparages him with dripping condescension and a subtly delivered racial epithet.
I don’t think we can explain Romney’s allusion away as an innocent reference to his kids. Let’s give the man more credit than that. Whether implicitly or explicitly, he understands the nuances of language in American culture because he grew up here. We all know the language. What separates us is whether we choose to embrace or reject it.
People say Romney has no soul, no principles. He can’t seem to decide on which side of anything he stands. Even his insinuation that President Obama is no better than his own apparantly dishonest boys comes amid his own whopper lies about taxes and healthcare. (Apparently then, the apples didn’t fall far from the tree?)
I think in this moment, and perhaps against his will, the real Romney seeps through the seams of his pressed and starched shirt. We've seen glimpses of this bully before. He is a guy who will do or say anything to get what he wants: a guy who put his dog on the car roof, and who cut off his classmate’s hair; a guy who wrote off 47% of Americans when he thought no one was looking. And now, a guy who called his president a "boy" in hopes of getting a vote.