Barack Obama, both substantively and symbolically, ran in 2008 as a much-needed healer. He was to bring the nation together as never before — a vow taken to heart by millions of voters of all backgrounds who ensured Obama’s 2008 victory. His biracial background and his uncanny ability to navigate through both Harvard Law School and the politics of Chicago community organizing seemed to make him ideally suited to usher in a postracial era — as was acknowledged, albeit quite crudely and insensitively, by both Harry Reid and Joe Biden in the 2008 campaign.
Yet quite the opposite development tragically has followed from Obama’s election. From the beginning of the 2008 campaign — evident in the exasperation of Bill Clinton (“they played the race card on me”) during the Democratic primaries — racial tensions have heightened, rather than lessened. We get a glimpse of the new strains in popular culture from the widely different reactions to the Trayvon Martin case: Black leaders point to racism in the treatment of “white Hispanic” George Zimmerman; whites cite rush-to-judgment bias against Zimmerman, as, in comparison, the wholesale carnage among black youth in Chicago is hardly discussed.
When the president announced that the son he never had might have resembled Trayvon, one wondered what would have been the reaction had Bill Clinton weighed in right in the midst of the O. J. trial, lamenting that the second daughter he never had might have looked like the slain Nicole. Are the daily accounts of black-on-white violence and flash-mobbing that splash across, say, the Drudge Report racist in their emphases, or are the mainstream media’s efforts to ignore the incidents completely more likely to be racially illiberal?
Again, these apparently rising tensions should be unlikely. Obama’s cabinet — like Bush’s and Clinton’s — is multiracial. The country at large has never been more intermarried, assimilated, and integrated. Popular culture is truly meritocratic, as the minority status of cultural icons has become irrelevant or perhaps even advantageous. Oprah Winfrey, Sean Combs, and Michael Jordan are among the wealthiest celebrities in the world. We have not had a white male secretary of state — the world’s second-most-influential position — in more than 15 years, since the tenure of the late Warren Christopher. Herman Cain — until media disclosures about his allegedly problematic past — once led all conservative presidential candidates in primary polls. Condoleezza Rice is mentioned prominently among possible Republican VP choices. Representative Allen West is a rock star of the Tea Party. Michael Steele headed the Republican National Committee.
Yet in these supposedly postracial times, racial divisiveness is detectable in matters both trivial and fundamental. To take three examples at random, popular entertainers such as Morgan Freeman (“they just conveniently forget that Barack had a mama, and she was white — very white, American, Kansas, middle of America. There was no argument about who he is or what he is. . . . America’s first black president hasn’t arisen yet”), James Earl Jones (“I think I have figured out the Tea Party. I think I do understand racism because I was taught to be one by my grandmother”), and Chris Rock (“Happy white people’s day”) are not just racially inflammatory, but utterly incoherent as well.
At the NAACP national convention, Mitt Romney was met with boos for pitching lower taxes, smaller government, and less regulation as a way to jump-start the economy and create more jobs for the hard-hit African-American community. In response, Representative Emanuel Cleaver reportedly explained the boos by saying, “Romney should not have criticized Obama in front of black audience.” Should Obama cease his attacks on Romney among predominantly white audiences? Would he ever address the NRA, and if so would he honestly try to explain his support for gun control?
The Congressional Black Caucus has never been larger, at 42 members — making blacks’ representation in Congress now roughly commensurate with their percentage in the general population — but in recent years members seem almost daily to offer divisive racial commentary, as if the caucus needs a daily dose of anti-white racism to survive. A random few examples: “bunch of white men” (Representative Corrine Brown); “Some of them in Congress right now of this Tea Party movement would love to see you and me . . . hanging on a tree” (Representative André Carson); “the president’s problems are in large measure because of his skin color” (Representative James Clyburn); “the middle class, it’s slipping away from our hands. And it has a lot to do with many issues. Racism, shipping jobs overseas, access — no access to technology” (Representative Frederica Wilson); “I saw pictures of Boehner and Cantor on our screens [at the California state Democratic convention]. Don’t ever let me see again, in life, those Republicans in our hall, on our screens, talking about anything. These are demons” (Representative Maxine Waters).