In the current racial circus, the president of the United States, in addressing an assembly of upscale black professionals and political leaders, adopts the style of a Southern Baptist preacher of the 1960s. He alters his cadences and delivery to both berate and gin up the large audience — posing as a messianic figure who will “march” them out to speak truth to power. In response, the omnipresent Rep. Maxine Waters goes public yet again, to object that the president has no right to rally blacks in this way, when he does not adopt similar tones of admonishment with Jews and gays. (Should Obama try to emulate the way he thinks gays and Jews talk in his next address to them?)
Hope-and-change has now sunk into little more than a tawdry spectacle of racial spoils, as the president of the United States desperately cobbles together squabbling special-interest racial, ethnic, and gender groups in lieu of restoring the nation’s prosperity. Before the age of Obama, I don’t recall that some members of the Black Caucus were so ready to invite political opponents to “go straight to hell,” or to allege that they were veritable murderers eager to lynch blacks and restore slavery.
Unspoken, of course, is the truth that Obama’s statism, deficits, interferences in the private sector, and spread-the-wealth rhetoric have frightened business owners into stasis — and the resulting slowdown hurts blacks most of all. But in this fantasy world of racial spoils, Obama’s profligate spending and borrowing can be faulted only for not being profligate enough. To suggest any other diagnosis would be to call into question the entire federal racial industry of the last 50 years — and those who have benefited the most by administering it.
Instead, a new insidious racism is supposedly energizing opposition to Obama, most expressly on the part of the Tea Party. Generally beloved actor Morgan Freeman alleged just that: Racism, not stupid policies, is what is hurting Obama — and by extension blacks in general.
But does the charge that racism is the basis for Obama’s current unpopularity have any empirical foundation? Barack Obama, himself half white, and a graduate of prep school and Ivy League universities, defeated Hillary Clinton in part because of the help and money of white liberals. He could not have defeated John McCain without sizable white support. The white vote, incidentally, split far more evenly than did the black vote, which went overwhelmingly for Obama, at well over 90 percent.
When presidential approval polls dipped below 40 percent, was the treatment accorded Barack Obama less charitable than that accorded his predecessor, George W. Bush? Freeman, like nearly all those who now level charges of racism, was quiet when a novel, an award-winning documentary, and an op-ed in the Guardian all speculated about assassinating the president of the United States. So far Al Gore and Sen. John Glenn have not suggested that Obama is adopting Nazi or Brownshirt tactics, as they alleged of Bush.
In fact, some of the most savage takedowns of Barack Obama have started to appear on the pages of the New York Times and the Huffington Post, where he is alleged to be an incompetent and weak purveyor of liberal values. It is almost as if some of these progressives relish critiquing Obama, in assurance that their liberal bona fides guarantees that no one will charge them with racism.
Indeed, there is something curious in the liberal argument that Obama, once deified as the ideal megaphone for progressive agendas, is now to be faulted for the current unpopularity of liberalism, given that he remains a far more effective advocate than Jimmy Carter and a far more doctrinaire leftist than Bill Clinton. It is almost as if liberal scapegoating of Obama is an attempt to shift responsibility for progressive failure from the message onto the hapless messenger — an unfairness that a Freeman would never discuss.
At almost the same time as Freeman made his divisive charges, Herman Cain won the Florida straw poll, largely because of the presence of tea-partiers, who felt the entrepreneurial Cain was more conservative than either Perry or Romney, and perhaps more authentic as well. Cain, remember, unlike Obama, is a product of the Southern black experience. His accent and cadences are real and not the studied product of self-described tutorials from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. He knew racism in an era and place that were a world away from the 1970s Honolulu of Obama’s middle-class white upbringing. How can Herman Cain’s broad white support substantiate Freeman’s charges of a widely racist America, other than by resorting to some strange condescending notion of false consciousness: i.e., that a hapless Cain is being used by white capitalists in a way Barack Obama — the largest recipient of Wall Street cash in the history of presidential campaigns and the first general-election candidate since public campaign financing was instituted to renounce it — most surely is not?
To criticize Obama endangers the historical nexus between government entitlements and those who ensure them. So powerful and lucrative is this relationship that whites who question both its utility and its intent, and blacks who are vocal about its unintended destructiveness, are labeled respectively racists and Uncle Toms. Indeed, that paradox is at the heart of Obama’s racial crisis: It is his own orthodox leftist agenda that has stalled the recovery and decimated black America. Yet for those who are invested in a crumbling Great Society, the remedy of unleashing the private sector and downsizing government would be worse than the recessionary malady itself.
Charging racism has psychological components as well. For left-wing blacks, it serves as a sort of preemption. When Freeman charges Obama’s opponents with abject racism, they, not he, must prove that they are not racially obsessed — at least until the next slur triggers the confessional process all over again. Of course, no one is allowed to accuse Freeman of racial tribalism for suggesting that criticism of Obama is racially motivated. Yet he sees racial hope only when a person of his race is elected by a largely white electorate, and sees racism when that same person does not succeed in convincing that same electorate that he can ameliorate hard times.
For white liberals, these charges of racism offer a different sort of exemption. The lives of most affluent liberal politicians, pundits, and opinion-makers differ little from those of their well-off conservative counterparts — the good job in the N.Y.–D.C. corridor; the appropriate pre–Ivy League prep schools, right internships, and good starting jobs for their kids; and little contact with blacks, Mexican-Americans, or members of the underclass in either their suburbs or their kids’ schools. Yet liberals feel terrible about their own exclusivity and the abyss between what is professed and what is lived, an angst over their voluntary segregation that is ameliorated by loudly and cheaply alleging that someone else is racist.
The paradoxes of race have even stranger contours. In the case of a Harry Reid or a Joe Biden in 2008, there was an almost gushing relief that a black candidate for president did not sound or act “black.” With Obama, they at last could square the circle of publicly prizing their close associations with a black presidential candidate while (almost) privately being relieved that he sounded indistinguishable from themselves.
In contrast, white tea-party conservatives, to my knowledge, have not expressed any worry that the accent or cadence of a Herman Cain (or of, say, a Clarence Thomas) was different from their own. They apparently are less apt to equate talent or aptitude with a predetermined brand of diction or mannerism, far more ready to appreciate authenticity and candor that accrue from practical experience in the workplace. To a conservative, someone who fought in the fierce arena of private commerce deserves respect in a way that someone establishing race as essential rather than incidental to his character, in hopes of garnering state advantage, does not.
Who, then, in the Tea Party, cares that the businessman Cain does not sound like a Yale academic, or that the crease in his pants might be not so straight, or that he cannot excite tics in cable anchormen’s legs? For tea-partiers, race is irrelevant: Being a Godfather’s Pizza CEO apparently is proof of greater accomplishment than a long political career, an Ivy League degree, or a distinguished tenure on Wall Street.
In short, Obama’s economic agenda has hurt blacks most of all. And his desperate efforts to deal with that fact have set race relations back decades.