One of the conservative’s favorite tools for blaming racial polarization on the current occupants of the White House is to accuse them of “playing the race card.” It happens every time one of them mentions racism as a factor in our country.

Usually the signal to noise ratio around such remarks by the President is so loud, it is difficult to unpack it all with much clarity. But recently some right wing publications accused First Lady Michelle Obama of “playing the race card” in her remarks at the opening of the Whitney Museum. It was a fairly quiet event, so let’s take a look and see what we can learn about how this kind of thing happens.

Here’s the quote from the First Lady’s remarks that they zero in on:

You see, there are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers and they think to themselves, well, that’s not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood. In fact, I guarantee you that right now, there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum.

And growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I was one of those kids myself. So I know that feeling of not belonging in a place like this. And today, as first lady, I know how that feeling limits the horizons of far too many of our young people.

That’s it. According to these folks, that’s “playing the race card.” It boggles the mind, doesn’t it? If anyone had any doubts that First Lady Michelle was speaking the truth, all you’d have to do is visit a local museum and count the number of young people (much less young people of color) who are there.

We know that many of the people who read the site I linked to up above will simply see what they wrote and buy that Michelle Obama is trying to stir up racial discord. That’s because it confirms what they already believe about her.

But of course, that’s not all she said. It turns out that the Whitney Museum’s current exhibit is titled, America Is Hard to See. Here’s how it’s described on their web site:

The title, America Is Hard to See, comes from a poem by Robert Frost and a political documentary by Emile de Antonio. Metaphorically, the title seeks to celebrate the ever-changing perspectives of artists and their capacity to develop visual forms that respond to the culture of the United States. It also underscores the difficulty of neatly defining the country’s ethos and inhabitants, a challenge that lies at the heart of the Museum’s commitment to and continually evolving understanding of American art.

As it turns out, Michelle was reacting to the fact that the current exhibit explores our complex cultural roots in this country. The museum is making a concerted effort to reach out to young people from all backgrounds to engage them in answering the question: “How can we truly, fully witness the melting pot of cultures and sensibilities and struggles that make America unlike any other country on earth?” That is the context for the remarks quoted above.

It’s also important to know what the First Lady said next.

You’re telling them [young people] that their story is part of the American story, and that they deserve to be seen. And you’re sending that message not just with the art you display, but with the educational programming you run here. You’re reaching out to kids from all backgrounds, exposing them to the arts, showing them that they have something to contribute.

What was a message from both the Whitney Museum and our First Lady about healing and reconciliation becomes twisted by these people into something ugly and divisive. That their anger and fear are so constraining that they miss out on the beauty of what is happening is actually rather sad.

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