Obama: African-Americans ‘Mongrel People’ (Other Americans Too!)

President Obama went on TV and said something true. What was he thinking?

President Obama went on “The View” yesterday to deliver an important statement on race:

President Obama waded into the national race debate in an unlikely setting and with an unusual choice of words: telling daytime talk show hosts that African-Americans are “sort of a mongrel people.”

The president appeared on ABC’s morning talk show “The View” Thursday, where he talked about the forced resignation of Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod, his experience with race and his roots.

When asked about his background, which includes a black father and white mother, Obama said of African-Americans: “We are sort of a mongrel people.”

“I mean we’re all kinds of mixed up,” Obama said. “That’s actually true of white people as well, but we just know more about it.”

The president’s remarks were directed at the roots of all Americans. The definition of mongrel as an adjective is defined as “of mixed breed, nature, or origin,” according to dictionary.com.

Obama did not appear to be making an inflammatory remark with his statement and the audience appeared to receive it in the light-hearted manner that often accompanies interviews on morning talk shows.

With regard to the Shirley Sherrod brouhaha:

Obama noted “there’s still a reptilian side of our brain” that leads people to not trust others “if somebody sounds different or looks different.”

Well, I’m glad he skipped the Boy Scout 100th Anniversary Jamboree for this!  A bunch of 11-year-olds would have been very confused.

There’s nothing in the president’s remarks that’s untrue or particularly controversial.   Still, he acted stupidly.

Not only have conservative bloggers like Melissa Clouthier, GayPatriot, Tammy Bruce, Doug Powers, Doug Ross, BlogProf, Basil, and LaShawn Barber jumping on the story but the out-of-context quotes will likely reverberate on the talk radio and TV circuit.

“Mongrel” is a word we normally use to describe dogs, not human beings.  And, as some of those linked above have noted, it has particularly odious connotations in the race debate. (Although, certainly, a man who looks black has more license in this manner than a white man.   So, Robert Byrd and even Rush Limbaugh comparisons are silly.)

Obama’s candid talk apparently played well in the friendly confines of “The View.”  And it’s the kind of thing that nobody would bat an eye at in a faculty lounge or a D.C. cocktail party.  It’s how intellectuals talk.   But he likely offended some substantial number of people with his word choice.

Presumably, that’s precisely the opposite of what he set out to do when he agreed to appear on a chit-chat show for housewives.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. john personna says:

    My early call would be that the “conservative critics across the internets” will hang themselves on this.

    You are honest enough to start with the agreement, and to say you see the truth of the President’s statements … and then call them bad not in and of themselves, but because of the predicted overreaction?

    You don’t think “predicted overreaction” is getting past its sell-by date?

  2. john personna says:

    (I’m pretty sure I or my friends used “mongrel” for me, as a kid. I’m just a mixed northern European, but with some vanishing percentages and 19th century Canadians involved.)

  3. James Joyner says:

    I don’t think this will devastate him, merely that it was a politically unwise choice of words. If he’d said, “You know, most of us are a little mixed up” or something like that, it would have come across as funny. “Mongrel” is a polarizing word.

    My point is that it’ll go over fine with intellectuals but not with a lot of regular folks.

  4. john personna says:

    Well, the connection to the Jamboree is interesting, because I do think it is the way kids (already) talk.

    Beyond that, I suppose it is sad that Obama didn’t just declare us “post-racial” instead. Of course, that one wouldn’t have been true.

  5. Brian Knapp says:

    I’m in agreement with James’ analysis. It’s the same sort of thing as when people use the word “niggardly”. It’s not what he said that’s necessarily bad, but what it SOUNDED like in people’s incomplete (ignorant) perceptions. Context and definition have absolutely nothing to do with it. Thus, it was probably politically unwise (since politics has little to do with content).

  6. sam says:

    @JJ

    “Mongrel” is a polarizing word.

    He called himself a “mutt” and I don’t recall the fauxrage over that. As for pissing off a bunch of people, he seems to have pissed off Melissa Clouthier, GayPatriot, Tammy Bruce, Doug Powers, Doug Ross, BlogProf, Basil, and LaShawn Barber. Yawn.

    “My point is that it’ll go over fine with intellectuals but not with a lot of regular folks.”

    Ah, regular folks. Let me see, where did I last see that expression on OTB? Oh, yeah:

    ” Wonks…focus on the things that interest them and those aren’t necessarily the things that matter most to regular people. “

  7. john personna says:

    I have a very different reaction to “niggardly.” I reject the equivalence 😉

  8. just me says:

    Mongrel doesn’t bother me-after all it is in reality a pretty good description even if it tends to have a negative connotation for some, the comment doesn’t appear to be intended as negative. I think the comparison to “niggardly” is a good one here.

    Perhaps the one thing we are or should be learning here is that context and intent does matter when words are chosen. Although we are living in an age of poltical gotcha and neither side of the aisle is all that prone to caring about context if it means scoring gotcha points. So I am not convinced we will learn the message.

  9. Andy says:

    I agree that his word choice was probably ill-considered, especially since I can’t imagine him using “mongrel” in normal conversation, so it’s not like it slipped out. And he has to be aware of all the baggage that comes with comparing African-Americans to animals, however obliquely. He’s been the target of a fair bit of it himself. Maybe he’s numb to it or he thinks he’s “owning it” or something.

    If there’s any lasting damage- probably too strong a word- it won’t be to Obama as much as it’ll be to race relations in general. Every racist redneck will be spouting off about mutt people now and claim they’ve got license because after all even Obama said it.

    I fail to see how it’s a mini-eyebrow-raise that he skipped some Boy Scouts back-patting session to be on the View. Are they relevant anymore? The View sure is.

  10. James Joyner says:

    @sam

    I’m both a wonk and an intellectual, as is Obama. But most regular people — including highly intelligent, highly educated people — have different interests and ways of speaking.

    I actually meant to note in the post the irony of my being about to do the same thing Obama did. “Intellectual” is something of a buzz word, in that it can be misinterpreted to mean people who are smarter than others.

  11. Dave Schuler says:

    This seems appropriate:

    The hell’s the matter with you? Stupid! We’re all very different people. We’re not Watusi. We’re not Spartans. We’re Americans, with a capital ‘A’, huh? You know what that means? Do ya? That means that our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world. We are the wretched refuse. We’re the underdog. We’re mutts! Here’s proof: his nose is cold! But there’s no animal that’s more faithful, that’s more loyal, more loveable than the mutt. Who saw “Old Yeller?” Who cried when Old Yeller got shot at the end?

    That certainly describes my immigrant ancestors except that they weren’t kicked out, they got out one step ahead of the sheriff.

    Something that I think may have been left out of the discussion is that African Americans may not realize the truth of the statement. Check out Emmitt Smith’s episode of the program Who Do You Think You Are? It’s on hulu.com. He was absolutely flabbergasted to learn that he had white ancestry.

  12. Herb says:

    I suspect some of the folks upset about Obama’s use of the word “Mongrel” are upset because they think he’s trying to associate himself with Ghengis Khan. “He ain’t even Asian,” they’re saying.

  13. John says:

    No irony in the fact that fear of reprisal from Beck-a-lites is the entire reason for this conversation anyway? So here is an open discussion on the topic something innocuous in context, poorly conceived out of context, is questioned because…it might be fodder for Beck-a-lites?

  14. PD Shaw says:

    As long as he didn’t say we’re all descended from neanderthals, I’m fine with it. I simply have to draw the line at neanderthals.

  15. PD Shaw says:

    I listened to a little local conservative radio on this topic yesterday. The caller’s complaint was that if a white guy had said this, he’d be crucified. I turned it off, because I know where this was going — it’s not fair that rappers from Compton get to use the “N” word. But I should add that the host thought this was a stupid issue for conservatives to raise.

  16. john personna says:

    Shrug. Give a man 10% neanderthal DNA and he’ll show up for the annual picnic.

  17. sam says:

    @PD

    “As long as he didn’t say we’re all descended from neanderthals, I’m fine with it. I simply have to draw the line at neanderthals.”

    Well, not descended, maybe, but Alley Oop is in there.

    Signs of Neanderthals Mating With Humans

    Neanderthals mated with some modern humans after all and left their imprint in the human genome, a team of biologists has reported in the first detailed analysis of the Neanderthal genetic sequence.

    The biologists, led by Svante Paabo of the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, have been slowly reconstructing the genome of Neanderthals, the stocky hunters that dominated Europe until 30,000 years ago, by extracting the fragments of DNA that still exist in their fossil bones. Just last year, when biologists first announced they had decoded the Neanderthal genome, they reported no significant evidence of interbreeding.

    Scientists say they have recovered 60 percent of the genome so far and hope to complete it. By comparing that genome with those of various present day humans, the team concluded that about 1 percent to 4 percent of the genome of non-Africans today is derived from Neanderthals. But the Neanderthal DNA does not seem to have played a great role in human evolution, they said.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/07/science/07neanderthal.html

  18. wr says:

    Just days ago Obama was excoriated around these pages for being so afraid of what sick jerks like Beck would say that he allowed the firing of Shirelly Shirrod.

    No, apparently, he’s screwed up by not parsing every word that could be deliberately misunderstood and misinterpreted by right-wing bottom feeders even more meretricious than Beck.

    So which is it? Should he spend his time worrying about what people whose only interest is his destruction will say or not? Until today, I thought you’d come down on the side of not.

  19. mantis says:

    But he likely offended some substantial number of people with his word choice.

    Yes, wingnuts who are sure to be offended by anything the president says. How could he be so stupid and upset them!

  20. James Joyner says:

    @wr
    So which is it? Should he spend his time worrying about what people whose only interest is his destruction will say or not? Until today, I thought you’d come down on the side of not.

    I think he should be cognizant of likely reactions when speaking. That’s a very different thing than firing an employee without a modicum of investigation.

    Obama is a natural politician and orator. This is a trap he shouldn’t be falling into.

  21. floyd says:

    Excellent demonstration….
    There are no words or actions which would shake the wide-eyed support of the ecstatic members of a cult of personality.

    Intent is irrelevant here.

    I think it is obvious that no politician, or his controller in this case, would ever “intend” to offend any potential affirmative voter.

  22. john personna says:

    I think Stewart’s clip is something like “you wouldn’t like anything he did.”
    http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/thu-july-29-2010/leader-s-digest
    That’s a pretty good bit.  Interesting that Daily Show didn’t have the radar to pick out the right’s pointless talking point of the day.

  23. Steve Plunk says:

    This conservative is not offended at all. I am amused by his choice of words since there were many other ways of making the point. Now instead of remembering any of the substance of his appearance all anyone will remember is the word mongrel. Should have went to the Boy Scout Jamboree.

  24. john personna says:

    Obviously if all these pundits (James included) wanted to contribute to a post-racial storyline, they could have done that.  “All anyone will remember” not because of the meaning, but because of the toehold it offered hit-journalists.
     
    James offers a low calorie version of that, he can’t give himself over to it entirely, but neither was this a “going forward” piece, nor “commentary for a better America.”
     
    I still expect this to peter out, but it is a sad example of American discourse.

  25. DavidL says:

    Dim Won, b/k/a Barack Obama insists we are all mutts, but his administration continues to racially clasiffy us mutts and treats some mutts as better than others.

    Memo to POTUS:  Never leave homo without your teleprompter.

  26. Tano says:

    “I think he should be cognizant of likely reactions when speaking.”
    What reactions? From people like you? – But you don’t seem to be bothered.
    From people in general? Once again – the average person out there isn’t bothered.
    The only people whose reactions he might need be cognizant of seem to be the rightwing extremists that you listed in your post.
    In other words, you are essentially asking him to parse his words in light of how the extremes amongst his opponents will react. And I too find that surprising from you.

  27. An Interested Party says:

    There are no words or actions which would convince the wild-eyed opposition of the foaming at the mouth members of a cult of hypocrisy…outrage has become so overused and diluted these days as to lose most of its relevance…

  28. roger says:

    Something that I think may have been left out of the discussion is that African Americans may not realize the truth of the statement. Check out Emmitt Smith’s episode of the program Who Do You Think You Are? It’s on hulu.com. He was absolutely flabbergasted to learn that he had white ancestry.

    I saw that episode, probably the most interesting of all the episodes in that short series. Not only was Smith surprised to learn he had white ancestry, he learned that the great-great-etc-grandmother was considered to have a very high level of race purity (for lack of a better less potentially polarizing phrase) and that level was quite rare.

  29. G.A.Phillips says:

    Obama noted “there’s still a reptilian side of our brain” that leads people to not trust others “if somebody sounds different or looks different.”

    I though This dude was a Christian and an Intellectual, lol, guess not…..

  30. Mr. Prosser says:

    Bill Murray in “Stripes”, “We’re all mutts! Feel his nose, it’s cold” It was funny then and it’s a good line for the president.

  31. reid says:

    Mongrel, mutt, who cares?  As others have pointed out, only the right-wing hate merchants will be bothered by this, and they’re not worrying about (by him or by normally reasonable bloggers).  The best thing you could have done was ignore this non-issue; certainly not send traffic their way.

  32. reid says:

    Sigh… that should have been “worth worrying about”.

  33. floyd says:

    AIP;
     Boo …. HaHa I get you every time![lol]

    Reid; 
      So you think discourse has not been harmed by “left wing hate mongers”?
    Actually, I don’t think it is a “non-issue” … I think that all Americans are essentially “Mongrels” and the claim of race aught to be denied on that basis, so that we can do away with race based priviledge once and for ALL! 
     Either that, or we are pure breed members of the “Human Race” which once again should deny the claim of race.
     

  34. reid says:

    floyd: I didn’t say anything about “left wing hate mongers” at all.  I was talking about this incident and how it’s just another excuse to hate on Obama.
    And I think your point about all of us being mongrels was Obama’s point, too, but it’s too simple to whitewash the whole issue of race with it.

  35. floyd says:

    Aip;
     It just occured to me that you mistakenly thought I was outraged! [lol]
    So… does your outrage at my comment make you a member of two cults, one , or none at all?
     You do, however, approach the truth with your last point ….Your “outrage has become so overused and diluted these days as to lose most of its relevance”.
     thanks.
     
    BTW; You may have made your point more clearly by simply condensing it to a comeback from that great philosopher PeeWee Herman…

    “I know you are, but what am I?”

  36. An Interested Party says:

    Silly floyd, as usual…I didn’t assume you were outraged, nor was I outraged by your comments…the last part of my comment wasn’t directed at you specifically…”get” me?  Hardly…continue to be a legend in your own mind…

  37. Makakilo says:

    I think President Obama should immediately refudiate his remark.

  38. marlene says:

    THE REDCROSS IS LOOKING FOR BLACK AMERICANS BLOOD DONORS, BECAUSE OF THEIR RARE BLOOD ALLES, NOT FOUND IN WHITES OR HISPANICS, WHO IS MAJORITY O BLOOD, WITHOUT THE RARE ALLES AND DUFFY FACTORS OF BLACK AMERICANS.
    Obama May be A Mongrel. But he is not Black American.
     
    BLACK AMERICANS HAD 100 YEARS OF SEGRAGATION, THAT PURIFIED THEIR BLOOD. JUST ASK THE RED CROSS, WHO HAVE THE RAREST BLOOD TRAITS IN AMERICA. THEREFORE THE GREATEST MAJORITY OF BLACK AMERICANS HAVE THE PUREST BLOOD IN AMERICA. 

     
    AND BLACK AMERICANS ARE THE ORGINAL PEOPLE ON EARTH THE FIRST BORN SHEMITES, ANYWAY, THEREFORE ALL OTHERS ARE MUTATIONS.

     
    SO THIS STATEMENT IS ONLY FOR THE MOST DEAD BRAIN AMERICANS, SO THEY CAN STAY DEAD BRAIN WHILE SOCIALISM AND ILLEGALS ARE RAMMED DOWN THEIR THROATS AND UP THE ARSE.

     

     

  39. marlene says:

    THE REDCROSS IS LOOKING FOR BLACK AMERICANS BLOOD DONORS, BECAUSE OF THEIR RARE BLOOD ALLES, NOT FOUND IN WHITES OR HISPANICS, WHO IS MAJORITY O BLOOD, WITHOUT THE RARE ALLES AND DUFFY FACTORS OF BLACK AMERICANS.
    Obama May be A Mongrel. But he is not Black American.
     
    BLACK AMERICANS HAD 100 YEARS OF SEGRAGATION, THAT PURIFIED THEIR BLOOD. JUST ASK THE RED CROSS, WHO HAVE THE RAREST BLOOD TRAITS IN AMERICA. THEREFORE THE GREATEST MAJORITY OF BLACK AMERICANS HAVE THE PUREST BLOOD IN AMERICA. 

     
    AND BLACK AMERICANS ARE THE ORGINAL PEOPLE ON EARTH THE FIRST BORN SHEMITES, ANYWAY, THEREFORE ALL OTHERS ARE MUTATIONS.

     
    SO THIS STATEMENT IS ONLY FOR THE MOST DEAD BRAIN AMERICANS, SO THEY CAN STAY DEAD BRAIN WHILE SOCIALISM AND ILLEGALS ARE RAMMED DOWN THEIR THROATS AND UP THE ARSE.

     


     

  40. marlene says:

    THE REDCROSS IS LOOKING FOR BLACK AMERICANS BLOOD DONORS, BECAUSE OF THEIR RARE BLOOD ALLES, NOT FOUND IN WHITES OR HISPANICS, WHO IS MAJORITY O BLOOD, WITHOUT THE RARE ALLES AND DUFFY FACTORS OF BLACK AMERICANS.Obama May be A Mongrel. But he is not Black American.BLACK AMERICANS HAD 100 YEARS OF SEGRAGATION, THAT PURIFIED THEIR BLOOD. JUST ASK THE RED CROSS, WHO HAVE THE RAREST BLOOD TRAITS IN AMERICA. THEREFORE THE GREATEST MAJORITY OF BLACK AMERICANS HAVE THE PUREST BLOOD IN AMERICA.  AND BLACK AMERICANS ARE THE ORGINAL PEOPLE ON EARTH THE FIRST BORN SHEMITES, ANYWAY, THEREFORE ALL OTHERS ARE MUTATIONS. SO THIS STATEMENT IS ONLY FOR THE MOST DEAD BRAIN AMERICANS, SO THEY CAN STAY DEAD BRAIN WHILE SOCIALISM AND ILLEGALS ARE RAMMED DOWN THEIR THROATS AND UP THE ARSE.