In the so-called post-racial America where President Barack Obama was elected to the White House, African-Americans – and black male journalists in particular – must be careful about offering opinions concerning race, even if it’s true.
Take Joe Williams, for example. Williams, a veteran black journalist who covers the White House for POLITICO, was suspended last week because POLITICO editors felt that Williams crossed the line when he appeared on MSNBC and said Mitt Romney is more comfortable around white people.
"Romney is very, very comfortable, it seems, with people who are like him," Williams told MSNBC's Martin Bashir. “That's one of the reasons why he seems so stiff and awkward in some town hall settings, why he can't relate to people other than that.”
"But when he comes on 'Fox and Friends,' they're like him, they're white folks who are very much relaxed in their own company,” Williams added.
So what’s the problem?
The editors at POLITICO insist that Williams – a reporter, not an opinion writer – overstepped his journalistic boundaries and should have kept his mouth shut.
"Politico journalists have a clear and inflexible responsibility to cover politics fairly and free of partisan bias," editors John Harris and Jim VandeHei reportedly wrote in a memo to the website's staff. "Regrettably, an unacceptable number of Joe Williams' public statements on cable and Twitter have called into question his commitment to this responsibility."
What’s lost in the debate about Williams’ journalistic judgment is this: Williams could be right.
Romney may in fact be more comfortable with whites than he is with black people. Williams wasn’t claiming that Romney is a racist, he was simply suggesting that Romney perhaps feels more at ease when associating with people like him: white and wealthy.
During an awkward photo-op with a group of black kids at a Martin Luther King, Jr. parade in January, Romney uttered this bizarre remark: "Who let the dogs out? Who, who."
It’s still not clear what Romney meant by his comment since there were so many other things he could have said in the moment. What’s clear is that Romney’s outburst was inappropriate.
It’s also no secret that Romney often appears detached from average Americans and has been portrayed as an elitist. And he doesn't help himself with remarks like “I’m not concerned about the very poor.”
And more to the point, Romney, the GOP's man for president, may also be uncomfortable around working-class whites, too.
Last month, in a shameless play for support, Romney told a group of white Mississippi voters that, “I’m learning to say ‘y’all’ and I like grits. Strange things are happening to me,” Romney joked while stumping through the South.
Romney's attempted good-ol-boy humor apparently didn't go over well.
“If you’re going to pander, at least pander well, and this isn’t pandering well,” Stephen Gordon, a Republican consultant based in Birmingham, Alabama, told reporters.
Williams could have listed some of Romney's obvious campaign flaws to bolster his assertions when he appeared on MSNBC, but the core of his argument has a measure of truth.
Until last month, when the Romney campaign hired Tara Wall, a black Republican, as a senior communications adviser, Romney didn't have any visible black strategists in his political orbit.
Meanwhile, conservative bloggers have blasted Williams, accusing him of using racially inflammatory language about Romney, Obama's GOP rival.
“My review of the tapes — to me and my personal opinion at this point — those two words were the ones that set people off,” Williams told reporters. “You know, ‘white folks,’ ‘Mitt Romney,’ it was a match to a tinder keg among certain segments of people who decide that they wanted to push back on what they believe is the liberal media.”
It’s noteworthy to mention that when John Kerry, the liberal Democrat from Massachusetts, ran for president in 2004, I stood outside a closed-door meeting where several prominent African American civil rights leaders were meeting with Kerry during a national NAACP convention in Philadelphia.
Black leaders criticized Kerry in 2004 – and some of them were furious — because Kerry didn't have any senior African American advisers on his campaign staff during portions of the presidential race.
“Kerry just doesn’t get it,” one influential black leader told me in Philadelphia. “He only surrounds himself with people who look like him.”
Discussions about race are tricky in today’s political environment. In New Orleans last week, during the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) convention, a friend noted that Williams is one of only a few black journalists at POLITICO at a time when racial diversity in America's newsrooms has become a flashpoint issue for NABJ.
Williams probably should have thought through his comments about Romney more carefully before speaking on national television, but his remarks – inappropriate or not — certainly shines a spotlight on the perceived boundaries of racial discourse, particularly in our alleged post-racial society.
COMMENTARY: Black Writer Out for 'White Folks' Romney Comment