Never has America been more assimilated, integrated, and intermarried — as is evident in everything from politics to popular culture, from statistics to anecdotes. Yet from late 2007 to 2012, Barack Obama has been establishing new rules of racial referencing. In general, his utterances follow a disheartening pattern. When he is ahead in the polls, has won an election, and is not campaigning, then he emphasizes the unity of the country. But when he is running for president, or campaigning for others, or sinking in the polls, he and his closest associates predictably revert to charges of racial bigotry, albeit usually coded and subtle. America is redeemed when it champions the Obamas, but retrograde when it does not.
Obama’s race-based strategy is predicated on some unspoken assumptions: Any short-term damage incurred by engaging in racial tribalism can easily be later erased by soaring teleprompted speeches on racial harmony; the media will either not widely report his emphases on race or generally support his charges; a person of color can hardly be culpable of racial polarization himself given the history of racial discrimination in this country.
In a recent speech before a Latino audience, President Obama, in blasting congressional Republicans, recalled that he had run for office because “America should be a place where you can always make it if you try; a place where every child, no matter what they look like, where they come from, should have a chance to succeed.” The obvious conclusion from his increasingly frequent “look like” trope is that his critics predicate success in America on just the opposite criteria. That is, supposedly racist opponents do not wish every child to succeed, and so it certainly matters to them a great deal what Americans should “look like.”
Recently, First Lady Michelle Obama complained about a description of her White House infighting in an otherwise favorable account of the first family, written by a New York Times reporter. She suggested that the book’s criticism was unfair because “That’s been an image that people have tried to paint of me since, you know, the day Barack announced, that I’m some angry black woman.”
Oddly, the first lady did not cite anyone who, in fact, had tried to stereotype her as an “angry black woman.” To be sure, “people” have characterized her as “angry,” given her prominent role in the 2008 campaign, during which she repeatedly found herself in dramas of her own rhetorical making (saying Americans were “just downright mean”; never having been proud of America before the nomination of her husband; etc.). But no one suggested that her overt anger derived from being either “black” or a “woman.”
Again, these invocations of race always raise logical antitheses: Do only those who do not find Mrs. Obama “angry” escape her charge of racism? Second, the race-obsessed Mrs. Obama forgets that outspoken first ladies, especially those like herself who have refined tastes and are political infighters, are always natural media targets. The press savaged Nancy Reagan on topics as diverse as her purchase of new White House china, her reliance on astrology, and her legendary infighting with chief of staff Don Regan. Fairly or not, Mrs. Reagan never quite shook the stereotype that she had roamed the West Wing as a sort of Lady Macbeth with aristocratic appetites — a theme of Mr. Regan’s memoirs. It is likely that Michelle Obama will not either.
Attorney General Eric Holder has often found race a convenient refuge from criticism — most recently accusing his congressional auditors of racism, for their grilling him over government sales of firearms to Mexican cartel hitmen. Again, there is an obvious inference: To the degree that you do not criticize Eric Holder you are not racist; to the degree that you do, you may well be. Holder, remember, earlier called his fellow countrymen “cowards” for not sharing his own particular take on racial relations, as if all of a craven America had now become Barack Obama’s clueless Pennsylvania clingers. In exchanges over his office’s dismissal of voter-intimidation charges against New Black Panther Party members, Holder described African-Americans as “my people.” Again, note the natural corollary once we descend into these racial quagmires: If Holder can talk of his “people,” are those who do not share his racial heritage not then quite the attorney general’s “people”?