By Frank Rich
As some 37,000 fans streamed into Camden Yards for the Orioles–Red Sox game on the last Saturday evening in April, things were getting out of hand in Baltimore. The peaceful protests of the day were spiraling into bitter confrontations. Outside the stadium and nearby, rocks were being hurled at police and through store windows. If you’d caught these fast-breaking developments online, you might have been tempted, as I was, to flip on CNN. Cable news may not have a reliable nose for news, but it can be counted on to bear witness whenever it smells blood.
I should have known better. This was the night of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington, D.C., and the network was giving it four hours of undivided attention. Government potentates, media folk, and a modest bounty of show-business celebrities were busy posing on the Washington Hilton’s red carpet on their way to the ballroom. The news happening 40 miles up the road might as well have been in Kazakhstan. CNN didn’t cut away to on-the-ground coverage or offer the obligatory split screen. There were, however, frequent glimpses of the anchor Wolf Blitzer at a prime table down front.
Yet, if you chose, as I did, to monitor these annual revels with one eye while following the Baltimore action on Twitter, you got both up-to-the-second snapshots of the latest urban battleground and a wide shot of the cultural chasm separating official Washington from modern America’s repeated eruptions of racial unrest. That chasm is nothing new. What made this particular instance poignant was the presence in the ballroom of our first African-American president, the Magic Negro who was somehow expected to relieve a nation founded and built on slavery from the toxic burdens of centuries of history.
The poor guy just can’t win. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote last year after the president responded with characteristic reserve to the clearing of Michael Brown’s killer in Ferguson, Barack Obama’s “blackness” has “granted him more knowledge of his country than he generally chooses to share.” Let him share too much of that knowledge, and he is immediately charged with playing the race card. Even a mild response to, say, the arrest of a black Harvard professor in his own Cambridge home can reignite recriminations from adversaries who stipulate that the president be color-blind (even if they are not). But Obama is a lame duck now, and at the Correspondents’ Dinner he let loose. He played straight man to the comedian Keegan-Michael Key, who arrived onstage to reprise his Comedy Central shtick as “Luther,” the “anger translator” charged with venting the outrage the constrained black president can’t express himself in public.