When "skinny" means "black."

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Aug. 4 2008 6:06 PM

When "Skinny" Means "Black"

The Journal stumbles over racial subtext.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand
Barack Obama

In the Aug. 1 Wall Street Journal, Amy Chozick asked, "[C]ould Sen. Obama's skinniness be a liability?" Most Americans, Chozick points out, aren't skinny. Fully 66 percent of all citizens who've reached voting age are overweight, and 32 percent are obese. To be thin is to be different physically. Not that there's anything wrong, mind you, with being a skinny person. But would you want your sister to marry one? Would you want a whole family of skinny people to move in next-door? "I won't vote for any beanpole guy," an "unnamed Clinton supporter" wrote on a Yahoo politics message board. My point is that any discussion of Obama's "skinniness" and its impact on the typical American voter can't avoid being interpreted as a coded discussion of race.

Chozick insists that she didn't intend her playful feature about Obama's physique as potential electoral liability to carry any racial subtext. "I can't even respond to that," she told me. "That's ridiculous." Bob Christie, Dow Jones' vice president of communications, phoned me in a flash to reaffirm that message. I believe Chozick and Christie when they say that the Journal never intended skinniness to serve as a proxy for race. (Full disclosure: I was a reporter in the Journal's Washington bureau a dozen years ago. I know neither Chozick nor Christie. Fuller disclosure: I phoned my former Journal colleague, Michel Martin, an African-American journalist who is now host of NPR's Tell Me More, which frequently addresses matters of race, to ask whether she was offended. She was not.)

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But I firmly disagree that a racial reading of Chozick's story is "ridiculous," and I would counter that any failure on Chozick's part to recognize such is just a wee bit clueless.

Let's review the basics. Barack Obama is the first African-American to win a major-party nomination for president of the United States. African-Americans are distinguishable from other Americans by their skin color. This physical attribute looms large in our nation's history as a source of prejudice.

The promise of Obama's presidency, in many people's minds, is partly that America will move toward becoming a post-racial society. It's pretty clear, though, that we aren't there yet. When white people are invited to think about Obama's physical appearance, the principal attribute they're likely to dwell on is his dark skin. Consequently, any reference to Obama's other physical attributes can't help coming off as a coy walk around the barn. A whole genre of humor turns on this reality. A Slate colleague informs me that an episode of the TV sitcom Happy Days ("Fonzie's New Friend") had its 1950s-era characters nervously discussing the fact that a black man in their midst was so … skinny. Was it true that skinny people liked fried chicken? That they were good at basketball? And so on.

It might be argued that body weight differs from certain other physical characteristics (apart from skin color) in that it has never been associated with racial caricature. Chozick wasn't asking (and, I feel sure, would never ask) whether Americans might think Obama's hair was too kinky or his nose too broad. But it doesn't matter. The sad fact is that any discussion of Obama's physical appearance is going to remind white people of the physical characteristic that's most on their minds. Moreover, Martin points out, "The black male body has been commodified in this country from its earliest days. People were brought here for their bodies." Better either to leave the whole topic alone, it seems to me, or to address the question of racial prejudice head-on, as Juan Williams did in an Aug. 4 Wall Street Journal column. In the future, the press would be wise to avoid discussing how ordinary Americans will respond to the size of Obama's ears, the thickness of Obama's eyebrows, and so on.

Is that prohibition too inhibiting? I doubt it, unless you happen to be a political cartoonist, and therefore have no choice but to navigate these perilous waters. Indeed, a few paragraphs into her story, Chozick shifts her topic from Obama's appearance to Obama's eating habits—from something Obama is to something Obama does. The shift was probably necessitated because in reality, people don't think much about Obama's skinniness. Chozick could substantiate her hypothesis with only two quotes, one of which—the "beanpole" quote—she solicited on the Web. ("Does anyone out there think Barack Obama is too thin to be president?" Chozick queried. "Anyone having a hard time relating to him and his 'no excess body fat'? Please let me know. Thanks!") In the vastness of cyberspace, you can always find somebody who will say whatever you want.

Are Obama's eating habits a political liability? The question may be trivial, but at least it's not offensive. The only real objection you can make there is that Chozick's litany of healthy foodstuffs favored by Obama (he "snacks on MET-Rx chocolate roasted-peanut protein bars and drinks Black Forest Berry Honest Tea, a healthy organic brew") echoes a similar litany from the day before by John McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis. ("Only celebrities like Barack Obama … demand MET-RX chocolate roasted-peanut protein bars and bottles of a hard-to-find organic brew—Black Forest Berry Honest Tea. …") But that possible misdemeanor lies beyond our purview.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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