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Republicans looking for 'great white hope' to counteract Obama? Congresswoman says she didn't mean it that way

August 27, 2009 |  5:21 pm

One of the instructive (and occasionally entertaining) aspects of the presidency of Barack Obama, the nation’s first black commander in chief, has been the intermittent surfacing of traditionally submerged racial attitudes. These incidents often take form as slips of the tongue, or perhaps “jokes,” that may or may not indicate racism. But the reaction to such statements serves to remind those in the public glare that potentially offensive references to race -- whether deliberate, accidental or unconscious -- will be ruthlessly picked apart in the blogosphere. 

Especially if you are a Republican. (Macaca, anyone?)

The latest pol to receive a self-inflicted egg facial is Lynn Jenkins, a freshman Republican congresswoman from Kansas, who according to the Associated Press told a group of constituents Aug. 19 that the GOP is “struggling right now to find the great white hope.”  She added: "I suggest to any of you who are concerned about that, who are Republican, there are some great young Republican minds in Washington." (Poor quality video is here. Comment is at about 50 seconds.) Getprev

The tape was -- naturally -- turned over to the Kansas Democratic Party, whose spokesman pronounced Jenkins's remark “a poor choice of words.”

Later, at another event,  Jenkins pleaded ignorance: “I was unaware of any negative connotation,” she said.  “And if I offended anybody, obviously, I apologize.”

Now, we don’t expect all of our legislators to be fans of boxing -- nor even theater or movies, for that matter. But we find it strange that an educated person such as Jenkins, who is a certified public accountant, never knew that the phrase “great white hope” is freighted with racial animus.

"Great white hope" was coined early in the last century to describe the search for a white boxer who could regain the world heavyweight boxing title from Jack Johnson, the first African American to win it.  Johnson -- and the ugly reaction of many whites to his 1908 victory -- was the subject of the 1967 play "The Great White Hope," which won a Tony for actor James Earl Jones in 1969, who also starred in the film. In 2005, PBS aired a Ken Burns documentary about Johnson, "Unforgivable Blackness."

Liberal blogger Matt Yglesias over at Think Progress believes a comment like Jenkins' should not shock anyone: "Now to be fair," he writes, "there are virtually no nonwhite Republican members of Congress, so in suggesting that the party’s future hopes rest essentially on white talent, Jenkins was arguably just stating the obvious."

Ouch.

-- Robin Abcarian

Photo: Lynn Jenkins addresses her use of "great white hope" today in Kansas. Credit: Associated Press

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