- Published Apr 6, 2014
The Color of His Presidency
Optimists hoped Obama would usher in a new age of racial harmony. Pessimists feared a surge in racial strife. Neither was right. But what happened instead has been even more invidious.
(Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)
A few weeks ago, the liberal comedian Bill Maher and conservative strategist and pundit Bill Kristol had a brief spat on Maher’s HBO show, putatively over what instigated the tea party but ultimately over the psychic wound that has divided red America and blue America in the Obama years. The rise of the tea party, explained Maher in a let’s-get-real moment, closing his eyes for a second the way one does when saying something everybody knows but nobody wants to say, “was about a black president.” Both Maher and Kristol carry themselves with a weary cynicism that allows them to jovially spar with ideological rivals, but all of a sudden they both grew earnest and angry. Kristol interjected, shouting, “That’s bullshit! That is total bullshit!” After momentarily sputtering, Kristol recovered his calm, but his rare indignation remained, and there was no trace of the smirk he usually wears to distance himself slightly from his talking points. He almost pleaded to Maher, “Even you don’t believe that!”
“I totally believe that,” Maher responded, which is no doubt true, because every Obama supporter believes deep down, or sometimes right on the surface, that the furious opposition marshaled against the first black president is a reaction to his race. Likewise, every Obama opponent believes with equal fervor that this is not only false but a smear concocted willfully to silence them.
This bitter, irreconcilable enmity is not the racial harmony the optimists imagined the cultural breakthrough of an African- American president would usher in. On the other hand, it’s not exactly the sort of racial strife the pessimists, hardened by racial animosity, envisioned either, the splitting of white and black America into worlds of mutual incomprehension—as in the cases of the O. J. Simpson trial, the L.A. riots, or Bernhard Goetz.
The Simpson episode actually provides a useful comparison. The racial divide was what made the episode so depressing: Blacks saw one thing, whites something completely different. Indeed, when Simpson was acquitted in 1995 of murder charges, whites across parties reacted in nearly equal measure: 56 percent of white Republicans objected to the verdict, as did 52 percent of white Democrats. Two decades later, the trial of George Zimmerman produced a very different reaction. This case also hinged on race—Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen from his neighborhood in Florida, and was acquitted of all charges. But here the gap in disapproval over the verdict between white Democrats and white Republicans was not 4 points but 43. Americans had split once again into mutually uncomprehending racial camps, but this time along political lines, not by race itself.
A different, unexpected racial argument has taken shape. Race, always the deepest and most volatile fault line in American history, has now become the primal grievance in our politics, the source of a narrative of persecution each side uses to make sense of the world. Liberals dwell in a world of paranoia of a white racism that has seeped out of American history in the Obama years and lurks everywhere, mostly undetectable. Conservatives dwell in a paranoia of their own, in which racism is used as a cudgel to delegitimize their core beliefs. And the horrible thing is that both of these forms of paranoia are right.
If you set out to write a classic history of the Obama era, once you had described the historically significant fact of Obama’s election, race would almost disappear from the narrative. The thumbnail sketch of every president’s tenure from Harry Truman through Bill Clinton prominently includes racial conflagrations—desegregation fights over the military and schools, protests over civil-rights legislation, high-profile White House involvement in the expansion or rollback of busing and affirmative action. The policy landscape of the Obama era looks more like it did during the Progressive Era and the New Deal, when Americans fought bitterly over regulation and the scope of government. The racial-policy agenda of the Obama administration has been nearly nonexistent.
But if you instead set out to write a social history of the Obama years, one that captured the day-to-day experience of political life, you would find that race has saturated everything as perhaps never before. Hardly a day goes by without a volley and counter-volley of accusations of racial insensitivity and racial hypersensitivity. And even when the red and blue tribes are not waging their endless war of mutual victimization, the subject of race courses through everything else: debt, health care, unemployment. Whereas the great themes of the Bush years revolved around foreign policy and a cultural divide over what or who constituted “real” America, the Obama years have been defined by a bitter disagreement over the size of government, which quickly reduces to an argument over whether the recipients of big-government largesse deserve it. There is no separating this discussion from one’s sympathies or prejudices toward, and identification with, black America.
It was immediately clear, from his triumphal introduction at the 2004 Democratic National Convention through the giddy early days of his audacious campaign, that Obama had reordered the political landscape. And though it is hard to remember now, his supporters initially saw this transformation as one that promised a “post-racial” politics. He attracted staggering crowds, boasted of his ability to win over Republicans, and made good on this boast by attracting independent voters in Iowa and other famously white locales.
Of course, this was always a fantasy. It was hardly a surprise when George Packer, reporting forThe New Yorker, ventured to Kentucky and found white voters confessing that they would vote for a Democrat, but not Obama, simply because of his skin color. (As one said: “Race. I really don’t want an African-American as president. Race.”) Packer’s report conveys the revelatory dismay with which his news struck. “Obama has a serious political problem,” he wrote. “Until now, he and his supporters have either denied it or blamed it on his opponents.” Reported anecdotes of similar flavor have since grown familiar enough to have receded into the political backdrop. One Louisiana man told NPR a few weeks ago that he would never support Senator Mary Landrieu after her vote for Obamacare. After ticking off the familiar talking points against the health-care law—it would kill jobs and so on—he arrived at the nub of the matter: “I don’t vote for black people.” (Never mind that Landrieu is white.)
We now know that the fact of Obama’s presidency—that a black man is our commander-in-chief, that a black family lives in the White House, that he was elected by a disproportionately high black vote—has affected not just the few Americans willing to share their racism with reporters but all Americans, across the political spectrum. Social scientists have long used a basic survey to measure what they call “racial resentment.” It doesn’t measure hatred of minorities or support for segregation, but rather a person’s level of broad sympathy for African-Americans (asking, for instance, if you believe that “blacks have gotten less than they deserve” or whether “it’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough”). Obviously, the racially conservative view—that blacks are owed no extra support from the government—has for decades corresponded more closely with conservatism writ large and thus with the Republican Party. The same is true with the racially liberal view and the Democratic Party: Many of the Americans who support government programs that disproportionately offer blacks a leg up are Democrats. But when the political scientists Michael Tesler and David Sears peered into the data in 2009, they noticed that the election of Obama has made views on race matter far more than ever.
By the outset of Obama’s presidency, they found, the gap in approval of the president between those with strongly liberal views on race and those with strongly conservative views on race was at least twice as large as it had been under any of the previous four administrations. As Tesler delved further into the numbers, he saw that race was bleeding into everything. People’s views on race predicted their views on health-care reform far more closely in 2009 than they did in 1993, when the president trying to reform health care was Bill Clinton. Tesler called what he saw unfurling before him a “hyperracialized era.”
In recent history, racial liberals have sometimes had conservative views on other matters, and racial conservatives have sometimes had liberal views. Consider another measure, called “anti-black affect,” a kind of thermometer that registers coldness toward African-Americans. Prior to 2009, anti-black affect did not predict an individual’s political identification (when factoring out that person’s economic, moral, and foreign-policy conservatism). Since Obama has taken office, the correlation between anti-black affect and Republican partisanship has shot up. Even people’s beliefs about whether the unemployment rate was rising or falling in 2012—which, in previous years, had stood independent of racial baggage—were now closely linked with their racial beliefs.
Racial conservatism and conservatism used to be similar things; now they are the same thing. This is also true with racial liberalism and liberalism. The mental chasm lying between red and blue America is, at bottom, an irreconcilable difference over the definition of racial justice. You can find this dispute erupting everywhere. A recent poll found a nearly 40-point partisan gap on the question of whether 12 Years a Slave deserved Best Picture.
In 1981, Lee Atwater, a South Carolina native working for the Reagan administration, gave an interview to Alexander Lamis, a political scientist at Case Western Reserve University. In it, Atwater described the process by which the conservative message evolved from explicitly racist appeals to implicitly racialized appeals to white economic self-interest:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and a by-product of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites … ‘We want to cut this’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘nigger, nigger.’ ”
Atwater went on to run George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign against Michael Dukakis in 1988, where he flamboyantly vowed to make Willie Horton, a murderer furloughed by Dukakis who subsequently raped a woman, “his running mate.” Atwater died three years later of a brain tumor, and his confessional quote to Lamis attracted scarcely any attention for years. In 2005, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert picked out the quote, which had appeared in two books by Lamis. In the ensuing years, liberal columnists and authors have recirculated Atwater’s words with increasing frequency, and they have attained the significance of a Rosetta stone.
A long line of social-science research bears out the general point that Atwater made. People have an elemental awareness of race, and we relentlessly process political appeals, even those that do not mention race, in racial terms.
In the 1970s and 1980s, liberals understood a certain chunk of the Republican agenda as a coded appeal—a “dog whistle”—to white racism. The political power of cracking down on crack, or exposing welfare queens, lay in its explosive racial subtext. (Regarding Willie Horton, an unnamed Republican operative put it more bluntly: “It’s a wonderful mix of liberalism and a big black rapist.”) This is what Paul Krugman was referring to in his recent Times op-ed titled “That Old-Time Whistle.” When the House Budget Committee releases a report on the failure of the War on Poverty and Paul Ryan speaks of a “culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working,” you can conclude that the policy report is mere pretext to smuggle in the hidden racial appeal.
Once you start looking for racial subtexts embedded within the Republican agenda, they turn up everywhere. And not always as subtexts. In response to their defeats in 2008 and 2012, Republican governors and state legislators in a host of swing states have enacted laws, ostensibly designed to prevent voter fraud, whose actual impact will be to reduce the proportion of votes cast by minorities. A paper found that states were far more likely to enact restrictive voting laws if minority turnout in their state had recently increased.
It is likewise hard to imagine the mostly southern states that have refused free federal money to cover the uninsured in their states doing so outside of the racial context—nearly all-white Republican governments are willing and even eager to deny medical care to disproportionately black constituents. The most famous ad for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign depicted an elderly white man, with a narrator warning bluntly about Medicare cuts: “Now the money you paid for your guaranteed health care is going to a massive new government program that’s not for you.”
Yet here is the point where, for all its breadth and analytic power, the liberal racial analysis collapses onto itself. It may be true that, at the level of electoral campaign messaging, conservatism and white racial resentment are functionally identical. It would follow that any conservative argument is an appeal to white racism. That is, indeed, the all-but-explicit conclusion of the ubiquitous Atwater Rosetta-stone confession: Republican politics is fundamentally racist, and even its use of the most abstract economic appeal is a sinister, coded missive.
Impressive though the historical, sociological, and psychological evidence undergirding this analysis may be, it also happens to be completely insane. Whatever Lee Atwater said, or meant to say, advocating tax cuts is not in any meaningful sense racist.
One of the greatest triumphs of liberal politics over the past 50 years has been to completely stigmatize open racial discrimination in public life, a lesson that has been driven home over decades by everybody from Jimmy the Greek to Paula Deen. This achievement has run headlong into an increasing liberal tendency to define conservatism as a form of covert racial discrimination. If conservatism is inextricably entangled with racism, and racism must be extinguished, then the scope for legitimate opposition to Obama shrinks to an uncomfortably small space.
The racial debate of the Obama years emits some of the poisonous waft of the debates over communism during the McCarthy years. It defies rational resolution in part because it is about secret motives and concealed evil.
On September 9, 2009, the president delivered a State of the Union–style speech on health care before Congress. After a summer of angry tea-party town-hall meetings, Republicans had whipped themselves into a feisty mood. At one point, Obama assured the audience that his health-care law would not cover illegal immigrants. (This was true.) Joe Wilson, the Republican representing South Carolina’s Second District, screamed, “You lie!”
Over the next few days, several liberals stated what many more believed. “I think it’s based on racism,” offered Jimmy Carter at a public forum. “There is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president.” Maureen Dowd likewise concluded, “What I heard was an unspoken word in the air: You lie, boy! … Some people just can’t believe a black man is president and will never accept it.”
Assailing Wilson’s motives on the basis of a word he did not say is, to say the least, a loose basis by which to indict his motives. It is certainly true that screaming a rebuke to a black president is the sort of thing a racist Republican would do. On the other hand, it’s also the sort of thing a rude or drunk or angry or unusually partisan Republican would do.
One way to isolate the independent variable, and thus to separate out the racism in the outburst, is to compare the treatment of Obama with that of the last Democratic president. Obama has never been called “boy” by a major Republican figure, but Bill Clinton was, by Emmett Tyrrell, editor of the American Spectator and author of a presidential biography titled Boy Clinton. Here are some other things that happened during the Clinton years: North Carolina senator Jesse Helms said, “Mr. Clinton better watch out if he comes down here. He’d better have a bodyguard.” The Wall Street Journal editorial page and other conservative organs speculated that Clinton may have had his aide Vince Foster murdered and had sanctioned a cocaine-smuggling operation out of an airport in Arkansas. Now, imagine if Obama had been called “boy” in the title of a biography, been subjected to threats of mob violence from a notorious former segregationist turned senator, or accused in a major newspaper of running coke. (And also impeached.) How easy would it be to argue that Republicans would never do such things to a white president?
Yet many, many liberals believe that only race can explain the ferocity of Republican opposition to Obama. It thus follows that anything Republicans say about Obama that could be explained by racism is probably racism. And since racists wouldn’t like anything Obama does, that renders just about any criticism of Obama—which is to say, nearly everything Republicans say about Obama—presumptively racist.
Does this sound like an exaggeration? Bill O’Reilly’s aggressive (and aggressively dumb) Super Bowl interview with the president included the question “Why do you feel it’s necessary to fundamentally transform the nation that has afforded you so much opportunity?” Salon’s Joan Walsh asserted, “O’Reilly and Ailes and their viewers see this president as unqualified and ungrateful, an affirmative-action baby who won’t thank us for all we’ve done for him and his cohort. The question was, of course, deeply condescending and borderline racist.” Yes, it’s possible that O’Reilly implied that the United States afforded Obama special opportunity owing to the color of his skin. But it’s at least as possible, and consistent with O’Reilly’s beliefs, that he merely believes the United States offers everybody opportunity.
Esquire columnist Charles Pierce has accused Times columnist David Brooks of criticizing Obama because he wants Obama to be an “anodyne black man” who would “lose, nobly, and then the country could go back to its rightful owners.” Timothy Noah, then at Slate, argued in 2008 that calling Obama “skinny” flirted with racism. (“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.”) Though the term elitist has been attached to candidates of both parties for decades (and to John Kerry during his 2004 presidential campaign), the writer David Shipler has called it racist when deployed against Obama. (“ ‘Elitist’ is another word for arrogant,’ which is another word for ‘uppity,’ that old calumny applied to blacks who stood up for themselves.”)
MSNBC has spent the entire Obama presidency engaged in a nearly nonstop ideological stop-and-frisk operation. When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell chided Obama for playing too much golf, Lawrence O’Donnell accused him of “trying to align … the lifestyle of Tiger Woods with Barack Obama.” (McConnell had not mentioned Tiger Woods; it was O’Donnell who made the leap.) After Arizona governor Jan Brewer confronted Obama at an airport tarmac, Jonathan Capehart concluded, “A lot of people saw it as her wagging her finger at this president who’s also black, who should not be there.” Martin Bashir hung a monologue around his contention that Republicans were using the initialism IRS as a code that meant “nigger.” Chris Matthews calls Republicans racist so often it is hard to even keep track.
Few liberals acknowledge that the ability to label a person racist represents, in 21st-century America, real and frequently terrifying power. Conservatives feel that dread viscerally. Though the liberal analytic method begins with a sound grasp of the broad connection between conservatism and white racial resentment, it almost always devolves into an open-ended license to target opponents on the basis of their ideological profile. The power is rife with abuse.
By February, conservative rage against MSNBC had reached a boiling point. During the Super Bowl, General Mills ran a commercial depicting an adorable multiracial family bonding over a birth announcement and a bowl of Cheerios. The Cheerios ad was not especially groundbreaking or remarkable. A recent Chevy ad, to take just one other example, features a procession of families, some multiracial or gay, and declares, “While what it means to be a family hasn’t changed, what a family looks like has.” This schmaltzy, feel-good fare expresses the modern American creed, where patriotic tableaux meld old-generation standby images—American soldiers in World War II, small towns, American flags flapping in the breeze—with civil-rights protesters.
What made the Cheerios ad notable was that MSNBC, through its official Twitter account, announced, “Maybe the right wing will hate it, but everyone else will go awww.” It was undeniably true that some elements of the right wing would object to the ad—similar previous ads have provoked angry racist reactions. Still, Republicans felt attacked, and not unreasonably. The enraged chairman of the Republican National Committee declared a boycott on any appearances on the network, and MSNBC quickly apologized and deleted the offending tweet.
Why did this particular tweet, of all things, make Republicans snap? It exposed a sense in which their entire party is being written out of the American civic religion. The inscription of the civil-rights story into the fabric of American history—the elevation of Rosa Parks to a new Paul Revere, Martin Luther King to the pantheon of the Founding Fathers—has, by implication, cast Barack Obama as the contemporary protagonist and Republicans as the villains. The Obama campaign gave its supporters the thrill of historic accomplishment, the sense that they were undertaking something more grand than a campaign, something that would reverberate forever. But in Obama they had not just the material for future Americana stock footage but a live partisan figure. How did they think his presidency would work out?
Even the transformation of the civil-rights struggles of a half-century ago into our shared national heritage rests on more politically awkward underpinnings than we like to admit. As much as our museums and children’s history books and Black History Month celebrations and corporate advertisements sandblast away the rough ideological edges of the civil-rights story, its underlying cast remains. John Lewis is not only a young hero who can be seen in grainy black-and-white footage enduring savage beatings at the hands of white supremacists. He is also a current Democratic member of Congress who, in 2010, reprised his iconic role by marching past screaming right-wing demonstrators while preparing to cast a vote for Obamacare. And, more to the point, the political forces behind segregation did not disappear into thin air. The lineal descendants of the segregationists, and in some cases the segregationists themselves, moved into the Republican Party and its unofficial media outlets, which specialize in stoking fears of black Americans among their audience. (Like when Rush Limbaugh seized on a minor fight between two schoolkids in Illinois to announce, “In Obama’s America, the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering.”)
The unresolved tension here concerns the very legitimacy of the contemporary Republican Party. It resembles, in milder form, the sorts of aftershocks that follow a democratic revolution, when the allies of the deposed junta—or ex-Communists in post–Iron Curtain Eastern Europe, or, closer to the bone, white conservatives in post-apartheid South Africa—attempt to reenter a newly democratized polity. South Africa famously created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but that was easy—once democracy was in place, the basic shape of the polity was a foregone conclusion. In the United States, the partisan contest still runs very close; the character of our government is very much up for grabs.
And the truth is almost too brutal to be acknowledged. A few months ago, three University of Rochester political scientists—Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell, and Maya Sen—published an astonishing study. They discovered that a strong link exists between the proportion of slaves residing in a southern county in 1860 and the racial conservatism (and voting habits) of its white residents today. The more slave-intensive a southern county was 150 years ago, the more conservative and Republican its contemporary white residents. The authors tested their findings against every plausible control factor—for instance, whether the results could be explained simply by population density—but the correlation held. Higher levels of slave ownership in 1860 made white Southerners more opposed to affirmative action, score higher on the anti-black-affect scale, and more hostile to Democrats.
The authors suggest that the economic shock of emancipation, which suddenly raised wages among the black labor pool, caused whites in the most slave-intensive counties to “promote local anti-black sentiment by encouraging violence towards blacks, racist norms and cultural beliefs,” which “produced racially hostile attitudes that have been passed down from parents to children.” The scale of the effect they found is staggering. Whites from southern areas with very low rates of slave ownership exhibit attitudes similar to whites in the North—an enormous difference, given that Obama won only 27 percent of the white vote in the South in 2012, as opposed to 46 percent of the white vote outside the South.
The Rochester study should, among other things, settle a very old and deep argument about the roots of America’s unique hostility to the welfare state. Few industrialized economies provide as stingy aid to the poor as the United States; in none of them is the principle of universal health insurance even contested by a major conservative party. Conservatives have long celebrated America’s unique strand of anti-statism as the product of our religiosity, or the tradition of English liberty, or the searing experience of the tea tax. But the factor that stands above all the rest is slavery.
And yet—as vital as this revelation may be for understanding conservatism, it still should not be used to dismiss the beliefs of individual conservatives. Individual arguments need and deserve to be assessed on their own terms, not as the visible tip of a submerged agenda; ideas can’t be defined solely by their past associations and uses.
Liberals experience the limits of historically determined analysis in other realms, like when the conversation changes to anti-Semitism. Here is an equally charged argument in which conservatives dwell on the deep, pernicious power of anti-Semitism hiding its ugly face beneath the veneer of legitimate criticism of Israel. When, during his confirmation hearings last year for Defense secretary, Chuck Hagel came under attack for having once said “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here,” conservatives were outraged. (The Wall Street Journalcolumnist Bret Stephens: “The word ‘intimidates’ ascribes to the so-called Jewish lobby powers that are at once vast, invisible and malevolent.”) Liberals were outraged by the outrage: The blog Think Progress assembled a list of writers denouncing the accusations as a “neocon smear.” The liberal understanding of anti-Semitism is an inversion of conservative thinking about race. Liberals recognize the existence of the malady and genuinely abhor it; they also understand it as mostly a distant, theoretical problem, and one defined primarily as a personal animosity rather than something that bleeds into politics. Their interest in the topic consists almost entirely of indignation against its use as slander to circumscribe the policy debate.
One of the central conceits of modern conservatism is a claim to have achieved an almost Zenlike state of color-blindness. (Stephen Colbert’s parodic conservative talking head boasts he cannot see race at all.) The truth is that conservatives are fixated on race, in a mystified, aggrieved, angry way that lends their claims of race neutrality a comic whiff of let-me-tell-you-again-how-I’m-over-my-ex. But while a certain portion of the party may indeed be forwarding and sending emails of racist jokes of the sort that got a federal judge in trouble, a much larger portion is consumed not with traditional racial victimization—the blacks are coming to get us—but a kind of ideological victimization. Conservatives are fervent believers in their own racial innocence.
This explains Paul Ryan’s almost laughable response to accusations of racial insensitivity over his recent comments. “This has nothing to do whatsoever with race,” he insisted. “It never even occurred to me. This has nothing to do with race whatsoever.” Why would anybody understand a reference to “inner cities” as racially fraught?
And so just as liberals begin with a sound analysis of Republican racial animosity and overextend this into paranoia, conservatives take the very real circumstance of their occasional victimization and run with it. They are not merely wounded by the real drumbeat of spurious accusations they endure; this is the only context in which they appear able to understand racism. One can read conservative news sites devotedly for years without coming across a non-ironic reference to racism as an extant social phenomenon, as opposed to a smear against them. Facts like the persistence of hiring discrimination (experiments routinely show fake résumés with black-sounding names receive fewer callbacks than ones with white-sounding names) do not exist in this world.
Conservatives likewise believe that race has been Obama’s most devious political weapon. Race consciousness, the theory goes, benefits Democrats but not Republicans. “By huge margins,” argues Quin Hillyer in National Review, “blacks vote in racial blocs more often than whites do.” Obama’s race, conservatives believe, lent him an advantage even among white voters. (As 2012 candidate Michele Bachmann put it in real-talk mode, “There was a cachet about having an African-American president because of guilt.”)
As a corollary, conservatives believe that the true heir to the civil-rights movement and its ideals is the modern Republican Party (the one containing all the former segregationists). A whole subgenre of conservative “history” is devoted to rebutting the standard historical narrative that the civil-rights movement drove conservative whites out of the Democratic Party. The ritual of right-wing African-Americans’ appearing before tea-party activists to absolve them of racism has drawn liberal snickers, but the psychological distress on display here runs much deeper. Glenn Beck’s “I Have a Dream” rally, the Republican habit of likening Obama and his policies either to slavery or to segregation (at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference alone, both Ralph Reed and Bobby Jindal compared the Obama administration to George Wallace)—these are expressions not of a political tactic but a genuine obsession.
This fervent scrubbing away of the historical stain of racism represents, on one level, a genuine and heartening development, a necessary historical step in the full banishment of white supremacy from public life. On another level, it is itself a kind of racial resentment, a new stage in the long belief by conservative whites that the liberal push for racial equality has been at their expense. The spread of racial resentment on the right in the Obama years is an aggregate sociological reality. It is also a liberal excuse to smear individual conservatives. Understanding the mutual racial-ideological loathing of the Obama era requires understanding how all the foregoing can be true at once.
In February 2007, with the Obama cultural phenomenon already well under way, Joe Biden—being a rival candidate at the time, but also being Joe Biden—attempted a compliment. “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” he said. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”
It was a cringe-worthy moment, but Obama brushed it off graciously. “He called me,” said Obama. “I told him [the call] wasn’t necessary. We have got more important things to worry about.”
This has been Obama’s M.O.: focus on “the more important things.” He’s had to deal explicitly with race in a few excruciating instances, like the 2009 “beer summit” with the black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, a friend of Obama’s, and James Crowley, the police sergeant responsible for Gates’s controversial arrest. (Obama’s response to the incident was telling: He positioned himself not as an ally of Gates but as a mediator between the two, as equally capable of relating to the white man’s perspective as the black man’s.) After the Zimmerman shooting, he observed that if he had had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin. In almost every instance when his blackness has come to the center of public events, however, he has refused to impute racism to his critics.
This has not made an impression upon the critics. In fact, many conservatives believe he accuses them of racism all the time, even when he is doing the opposite. When asked recently if racism explained his sagging approval ratings, Obama replied, “There’s no doubt that there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black president. Now, the flip side of it is there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I’m a black president.” Conservatives exploded in indignation, quoting the first sentence without mentioning the second. Here was yet another case of Obama playing the race card, his most cruel and most unanswerable weapon.
I recently asked Jonah Goldberg, a longtime columnist for National Review, why conservatives believed that Obama himself (as opposed to his less reticent allies) implied that they were racially motivated. He told me something that made a certain amount of sense. A few days before Obama’s inaugural address, at a time when his every utterance commanded massive news coverage, the president-elect gave a speech in Philadelphia calling for “a new declaration of independence, not just in our nation, but in our own lives—from ideology and small thinking, prejudice and bigotry—an appeal not to our easy instincts but to our better angels.”
What struck Goldberg was Obama’s juxtaposition of “ideology and small thinking”—terms he has always associated with his Republican opponents—with “prejudice and bigotry.” He was not explicitly calling them the same thing, but he was treating them as tantamount. “That feeds into the MSNBC style of argument about Obama’s opponents,” Goldberg told me, “that there must be a more interesting explanation for their motives.”
It’s unlikely that Obama is deliberately plotting to associate his opponents with white supremacy in a kind of reverse-Atwater maneuver. But Obama almost surely believes his race helped trigger the maniacal ferocity of his opponents. (If not, he would be one of the few Obama voters who don’t.) And it’s not hard to imagine that Obama’s constant, public frustration with the irrationality pervading the Republican Party subconsciously expresses his suspicions.
Obama is attempting to navigate the fraught, everywhere-and-yet-nowhere racial obsession that surrounds him. It’s a weird moment, but also a temporary one. The passing from the scene of the nation’s first black president in three years, and the near-certain election of its 44th nonblack one, will likely ease the mutual suspicion. In the long run, generational changes grind inexorably away. The rising cohort of Americans holds far more liberal views than their parents and grandparents on race, and everything else (though of course what you think about “race” and what you think about “everything else” are now interchangeable). We are living through the angry pangs of a new nation not yet fully born.