Why conservatives are ripping apart Michelle Obama's story on racism at Target

Conservatives are punching holes in Michelle Obama's story about racism at Target.  Are the Obamas' examples trivial slights or actual racism?

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
President Obama standing onstage with first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Malia (2nd l.) and Sasha (2nd r.), participates in the taping of the 'Christmas in Washington' television special to benefit Children's National Medical Center in Washington December 14, 2014.

Remember the much-covered People Magazine interview in which the President and First Lady described everyday casual racism they have experienced, perhaps as a way to edge into the national conversation on Michael Brown and Eric Garner?

It didn't take long for conservatives to rip into their story.

President Obama described being mistaken for a waiter and a valet, indignities that illustrate his brushes, albeit minor, with racism.

But it was Mrs. Obama's story that caught the attention of conservative critics.

Apparently illustrating her experience with racial bias, the First Lady described an experience shopping at Target.

"I tell this story – I mean, even as the first lady – during that wonderfully publicized trip I took to Target, not highly disguised, the only person who came up to me in the store was a woman who asked me to help her take something off a shelf," she told People. "Because she didn’t see me as the first lady, she saw me as someone who could help her. Those kinds of things happen in life. So it isn’t anything new."

A case of racism or simple need?

Perhaps, some conservative sites have pointed out, the woman asked Mrs. Obama for help not because of her skin color but because of her height.

Michelle Obama is 5’11”.

"Of course short people ask tall people for help in stores all the time," writes John Sexton at Breitbart.com. "There’s nothing racial or condescending about it."

Some also pointed out that dressed as she was on that highly-covered Target trip – in a bright floral button-down over a neon yellow tee - Mrs. Obama would not have been mistaken for a Target employee in their distinctive khaki pants and red shirts.

But the bigger story is how Michelle Obama's narration of the Target experience differed from an earlier version of it on the Late Show with David Letterman in March 2012.

"I thought I was undercover. I have to tell you something about this trip though. No one knew that was me because a woman actually walked up to me, right? I was in the detergent aisle, and she said — I kid you not — she said, ‘Excuse me, I just have to ask you something,’ and I thought, ‘Oh, cover’s blown.’ She said, ‘Can you reach on that shelf and hand me the detergent?’  I kid you not…And the only thing she said — I reached up, ’cause she was short, and I reached up, pulled it down — she said, ‘Well, you didn’t have to make it look so easy.’ That was my interaction. I felt so good. … She had no idea who I was. I thought, as soon as she walked up — I was with my assistant, and I said, ‘This is it, it’s over. We’re going to have to leave.’ She just needed the detergent."

Most would agree it was an unfortunate oversight, using the same experience to illustrate two very different, perhaps contradictory, points. But some conservatives took it further.

"This is just one example of one thing we have grown to know about the Obamas," wrote the Tea Party News Network. "They will say anything, even create stories, people, and outright lie or misrepresent information, to fit their agenda."

Of course, we're unlikely to decipher Mrs. Obama's intentions – or the shopper who asked for help. But that won't stop the debate.

"Could the Target shopper who asked Mrs. Obama for help simply not have recognized her and needed, presumably, a taller person’s assistance? Sure, in theory," writes Charles M. Blow in an op-ed for The New York Times. "Or could the encounter have been disdainful and presumptuous, a manifestation of some inherent bias? Sure, that too could have been the case.

"The truth is, we don’t know. The lady asking for help might not even know. We are not always aware of our biases, let alone are we always able to articulate them. And people can sometimes be hypersensitive to bias when they are submerged in it."

It's also fair to say President Obama handled it more wisely by differentiating his slights – "upper crust indignities that might sound foreign and frivolous to people who don’t regularly dine at restaurants with valet service or attend black-tie dinners," as The New York Times put it – from racism that is more consequential for most African-Americans. 

“It’s one thing for me to be mistaken for a waiter at a gala. It’s another thing for my son to be mistaken for a robber and to be handcuffed, or worse, if he happens to be walking down the street and is dressed the way teenagers dress," he said in the People interview.

How valid is Mrs. Obama's story? Are their examples trivial slights or actual racism? And what are they trying to say about the larger conversation on race and police brutality in America?

Little is known, and even less is agreed upon, but this much is clear: the sharp reaction to the Obamas' comments on racism are indicative of broader perceptions on race relations in America.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released this week found that “just 40 percent of Americans believe race relations in the U.S. are good — the lowest share registered by the poll since 1995.”

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