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).
Hanging on a tree? Because of his skin color? Demons? Without the demagoguery, would the members of the Black Caucus be evaluated on the effects of their voting records upon the black community, and would their own privilege be juxtaposed to the living conditions of those whom they represent?
The Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the president’s former pastor for some 20 years, was again in the news last week. In a speech to a congregation in Washington, D.C., he reportedly trumped his usual racist fare by venturing into Hitlerian genetic territory, speaking of African-American children who are raised among whites: “Let them get that alien DNA all up inside their brain and they will turn on their own people in defense of the ones who are keeping their own people under oppression. Sheep dogs. There’s white racist DNA running through the synapses of his or her brain tissue. They will kill their own kind, defend the enemies of their kind or anyone who is perceived to be the enemy of the milky white way of life.”
White racist DNA?
Wright seems intent on proving to the world that his past racist outbursts, which became an issue in the 2008 campaign, were not atypical (as the president himself had implied), but simply windows into a disturbed soul — secure that no one will speak the truth that he is a hateful racist and one who for two decades had a great deal of influence over the mind and soul of the man who would become president.
There has not been a real effort from this administration to lessen the growing racial tensions. If Obama’s 2008 campaign remarks (“typical white person,” “I can no more disown [Wright] than . . . ,” the clingers of Pennsylvania, etc.) were chalked up to the normal excesses of any hard-fought campaign, it is more difficult to explain away his polarizing editorializing as president — the blanket condemnation of police in the Skip Gates affair, the “punish our enemies” appeal to the Latino community, the unnecessary sermonizing in the still-pending Trayvon Martin case. Attorney General Holder at times seems deliberately desirous of exacerbating racial tensions rather than diminishing them. His abrupt dismissal of the New Black Panther Party case raised the question of what exactly might one have to do at a polling place to earn a charge of voter intimidation. His blanket condemnation of Americans as “cowards” for not discussing racial relations on his terms was unfortunate — as was the phrase “my people.” On two occasions, Holder alleged that congressional inquiries into his handling of the Fast and Furious matter were racially motivated. And most recently, he charged that state laws requiring driver’s-license identification at polls was not only racially based, but reminiscent of the southern poll tax — a charge that Holder, as a legal scholar, cannot really believe is accurate. His accusation that the Arizona immigration statute was probably predicated on racial profiling proved an immediate embarrassment when he confessed that he had not actually read the bill.
Why then the exacerbation of racial tensions? There are dozens of exegeses, spanning the political spectrum. We are in a deep recession that is hurting African-Americans more than others, and their leadership remains committed to Great Society solutions, even as the nation faces insolvency and is disengaging from the redistributive blue-state model — creating a new apprehension that cutbacks are tantamount to racist indifference. Or: Blacks, like all racial groups, naturally identify with their own kind, in the same manner as, for example, Greek-Americans or Armenian-Americans who will cross party lines out of understandable ethnic pride — and thus are especially protective of the public image of their fellow African-American Barack Obama. Or: White resentment at the prominence of elite African-Americans is doing its part to widen the divide and earn a pushback. Or: A worried Barack Obama understands that for his reelection he must create an improbable logic: Tens of millions of supportive whites in 2008 were lauded for their liberality, and yet they will face accusations of racism if they dare vote otherwise in 2012.
What is clear is that the blue-state model is failing worldwide. Greece is to Germany as California is to Texas or Illinois is to Indiana. The Obama statist paradigm is now bankrupt, whereas the Reagan and even the Clinton paradigm led to spectacular prosperity. And I do not speak just in an economic sense. The therapeutic school curriculum leads only to dismal test scores and poorly educated students. The logical dividend of a Byzantine system of racial politics is the self-constructed “Cherokee” Elizabeth Warren. The radical green model predictably results in billions of dollars in failed Solyndras, as trillions of cubic feet of new, clean-burning natural gas go neglected. Detroit and Houston are no longer just different cities, but emblematic of two different economic choices. In other words, the contradictions in these models are apparent even to their adherents, as they lose the public’s trust and support and turn ever more desperate.
In the case of race relations, the public — of all races — is moving beyond race and, in an increasingly multiracial, intermarried society, with a half-century of affirmative action and the Great Society behind it, transcending racial awareness. That evolution terrifies a race-based elite that cannot survive in its present privilege if there are no white dragons to slay. Without Trayvon Martin gunned down like “a dog,” there can be no more associate vice provosts for diversity affairs. Those who warn us about blacks hanging from trees, of a new poll tax, of white clinging yokels clutching their Bibles, have to warn us of these “demons” to ensure the survival of their lucrative old system of big government programs and set-asides, which often enriches themselves while leaving their constituents impoverished. Without a supposed Klan everywhere on the march, Al Sharpton would be left to his self-explained role as community activist dealing with the Afghanistan-like daily carnage in Chicago, far away from both cameras and lucre. Without dastardly “cowards,” there can be no more “my people,” as the race of African-Americans, as of other racial groups, becomes incidental, not essential, to Americans’ identity — and Eric Holder becomes notable not, as he boasts, for being the first African-American attorney general, but for being the first to be held in contempt for withholding documents and stonewalling congressional inquiries.
Crying wolf about white evil-doing is predicated on the ossified notion that, given the history of slavery and racism in this country, there always must be two standards of public comportment, in which African-American public figures are given a pass for what would end the careers of others. Yet I think that pass is ending amid a growing cynicism and weariness among the multiracial public at large. When a pampered multimillionaire like Morgan Freeman or Chris Rock goes off the deep end, we yawn; when the insular Black Caucus resorts to yet more racially inflammatory accusations, we sleep; when the Washington careerist Eric Holder labels yet another of his critics a racist, we snore. Even Al Sharpton’s liberal supporters are embarrassed by his charade. In short, no one believes any more; the currency of racist accusation has become so inflated that it has lost its purchasing power.
Barack Obama promised to make race itself incidental in our lives; so far all he has succeeding in doing is making charges of racism irrelevant.