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”?
Our new racial profiling ripples out from the top. When Rick Perry referred to “a big black cloud that hangs over America — that debt that is so monstrous,” he was accused of racism; the second half of the quote was conveniently omitted. Chris Matthews referred to Perry’s support of federalism with the quip, “This is going to be Bull Connor with a smile.” Lee Siegel just wrote in the New York Times that “Mitt Romney is the whitest white man to run for president in recent memory.” Think for a minute of prominent public figures who at one time or another have been accused by the Obama team of either being racist or playing racial politics against them: Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Darrell Issa, John McCain, Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum. The list grows in direct proportion to the uncertainty of Obama’s political fortunes.
President Obama and his supporters insist that they deemphasize matters of race, but their record in just the last four years reveals a veritable obsession with it, in a manner that was never true of prior minority members serving in high office — think of Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, or Alberto Gonzales. We are not that far away from Obama’s appearance on the national scene as a serious presidential candidate in early 2008. Yet he has already reformulated racial discourse in America, most famously blasting Pennsylvania whites who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them,” and introducing “typical white person” into the national lexicon and the racist Rev. Jeremiah Wright into the national consciousness. The mythography of the 2008 campaign was that Barack Obama overcame the burdens of racism; the reality was that racial intemperance during that long year came principally from Barack Obama himself or his personal pastor — and, in our disturbed culture, even to acknowledge that fact earns the charge of “Racist!”
Obama has mainstreamed the practice of profiling friends and enemies on this reactionary basis of racial identity. In a Democratic National Committee video in April 2010, Obama called on “young people, African-Americans, Latinos, and women . . . to stand together once again.” Are those not included in his categories, then, not to stand “together” again? Shortly before the November 2010 congressional elections, Obama suggested told a huge audience in Philadelphia that Republicans “are counting on black folks staying home.” In one of his most surreal speeches before the Congressional Black Caucus, Obama in affected fashion adopted the supposed patois of Black America in defining collective interests by shared race: “Stop grumblin’. Stop cryin’. We are going to press on. We’ve got work to do.” Separately, he appealed to Latino voters not to stay home from the 2010 election, but instead to “punish our enemies” — and not to fall prey to the Republicans’ “cynical attempt to discourage Latinos from voting.” I don’t think a president of the United States has ever, at least since the pre–Civil War era, openly called on a racial group to join with him to punish political adversaries.
Obama stereotyped the Cambridge police department as having “acted stupidly” for detaining his friend Henry Louis Gates, an African-American Studies professor at Harvard. He allegedly complained to political supporters that racial bias explains much of the Tea Party’s opposition to his administration. The wonder is not only that the president of the United States constantly refers to race, but that his serial obsession now earns snores rather than surprise.
Indeed, President Obama’s example has radically brought the politics of race into almost every conceivable forum. Members of the Black Caucus now routinely either allege outright racism or exhibit racist attitudes themselves if opposition arises to the Obama agenda. That is a serious charge, but it is one supported by numerous examples. For Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D., Mo.), white presidents must be “pushed a great deal more” to address black unemployment than would a black president. For Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D., Tex.), argument over the debt ceiling is proof of racial animosity toward Barack Obama; for Rep. Barbara Lee (D., Calif.), Republicans are trying to deny blacks the vote; for Rep. André Carson (D., Ind.), the Tea Party wishes to lynch blacks and hang them from trees; for Rep. Charles Rangel (D., N.Y.), Rick Perry’s job creation in Texas is “one stage away from slavery,” and on and on and on. Icons of popular culture — whether a Morgan Freeman (“It’s a racist thing”) or a Whoopi Goldberg (“I’m playing the damn [race] card”) — routinely accuse Americans of racism for their growing unhappiness over the record of the Obama administration.
What can we expect in 2012? Race all the time at every venue. In 2008, there were two general themes to the blank-slate candidacy of Barack Obama: (1) America could change history by electing its first African-American president, and (2) a vote for Barack Obama was a repudiation of the then-unpopular George Bush. But four years later there is now an Obama record of dismal economic growth, huge deficits, astronomical new national debt, high unemployment, fresh class and racial divisions, and a failed reset/outreach foreign policy that had promised breakthroughs with Iran, the Palestinians, Russia, Syria, and Venezuela, based on redefining traditional notions of friends and enemies.
Who would wish to run on a record like that?
But the alternative? In 2012, unlike 2008, there is less novelty in Barack Obama as our first black president. And George Bush is now four years into the past. For Obama, then, we are left with a demonized “them.”
Sometimes “they” are the suspect “1 percent” who enjoy their privileges through ill-gotten gains. Sometimes they are reactionary enemies of big government. And sometimes they are veritable racists — the sorts who stereotype minorities, who are cowards, who turn away voters from the polls, who do not like Americans who look different from them, who object to record debt largely as a way to disguise their own racial bias — and who surely need to be punished.
This is going to be an ugly campaign. The Obama team will revert to race unceasingly, in cry-wolf fashion, and thus cheapen the currency with every charge. In turn, the more we will hear allegations of “racism,” the less people will pay attention to them. And so all the more frequently will such discounted slurs have to be repeated — sort of like pushing about wheelbarrows of Depression-era inflated German marks to purchase ever fewer commodities.
There will be many legacies of Barack Obama. Racial divisiveness is proving the most disturbing.