The election of the biracial Barack Obama was supposed to usher in a new era of racial harmony. Instead, that dream is becoming a tribally polarized nightmare — by design, and intended to assist in the reelection of Barack Obama.
Consider the increasing obsession with the term “white” (as in versus “black”), along with the old standby charge of “racism” — nearly all of it emanating from the president’s surrogates and celebrity supporters. Upon the announcement of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential pick, almost immediately Donna Christensen, the non-voting congressional delegate from the Virgin Islands, tweeted: “Wait a minute! Are there black people in Va? Guess just not w Romney Ryan! At least not seeing us. We know who’s got our back & we have his.”
“Got our back” — compare the Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith’s video appealing to African-Americans to cover the president’s back — of course implies that Paul Ryan is a veritable racist who by virtue of his skin color and conservative politics will stab blacks in the back. In that vein, Mia Farrow, viewing the initial Romney/Ryan rally, offers, “Camera pans crowd: whole bunch of white people.”
Here is what Melissa Harris-Perry, the weekend host of MSNBC’s Hardball, said of Paul Ryan’s referring to the Declaration of Independence: “The thing I really have against him is actually how he and Gov. Romney have misused the Declaration of Independence. I’m deeply irritated by their notion that the ‘pursuit of happiness’ means money for the richest and that we extricate the capacity of ordinary people to pursue happiness. When they say ‘God and nature give us our rights, not government,’ that is a lovely thing to say as a wealthy white man.” In the postmodern world of Ms. Harris-Perry, which is the world of Barack Obama, what we say has no innate meaning apart from our class, race, and gender.
Expect the Ryan selection in the next few days to spawn a new flurry of “wealthy white man” invective in a manner that two Clinton-Gore tickets, a Gore-Lieberman ticket, and a Kerry-Edwards ticket never did.
Yet there is no indication of a new racism on the part of conservatives or Republicans. Herman Cain — until dismembered by media accusations — led the Republican primary field for weeks in the polls. Michael Steele ran the Republican National Committee for two years. Allen West remains the Tea Party’s most popular politician. And many polls showed that Condoleezza Rice was the favored vice-presidential candidate among the Republican faithful. George W. Bush chose two African-American secretaries of state. That post has not been held by a white male since the ancient days of Warren Christopher.
Yet when Romney goes to Poland, Cokie Roberts hypothesizes that he is angling for the votes of Polish-Americans. Louise Lucas, a Virginia state senator who identifies herself as part of the Obama “Truth Team,” not long ago blurted out: “What I am saying to you is Mitt Romney, he’s speaking to a segment of the population, who does not like to see people other than a white man in a White House or any other elected position.” According to Ms. Lucas’s logic, if Obama in 2008 won 43 percent of the so-called white vote, and 97 percent of the African-American vote, then there lingers a suspicion of white racism, of prejudiced individuals who are voting on the basis of racial identification rather than the issues.
Among the many unhinged things that the majority leader of the United States Senate, Harry Reid (D., Nev.), has said, the creepiest is his most recent editorializing about a possible Mitt Romney victory in November: “The day after the election 17 angry old white men will wake up and realize they just bought the country.” In 2008, Barack Obama raised about $800 million, well more than double the amount raised by John McCain. Were there any “angry old white men” who helped Obama gain such a substantial edge in money-raising?
Not long ago NBC’s Brian Williams asked Mitt Romney to confirm or deny that he was going to pick “an incredibly boring white guy” as his running mate. In the world of Brian Williams and Harry Reid, “angry old white men” and “boring white guy[s]” refer to suspect conservative others, never themselves, who win exemption from blame for their natural propensities because of their bumper-sticker liberalism. Imagine the fate of any pundit, politician, or media person who talked in stereotyped terms of “wealthy black men,” “incredibly boring black guys,” or “angry old black men.”
This latest round of acrimony follows the accusations this spring of tea-party racism, mostly from members of the Black Caucus. Charles Rangel (D., N.Y.), remember, claimed that Republican primary candidate Rick Perry advocated a jobs program that was one “one stage away from slavery.” Representative André Carson (D., Ind.) leveled the charge that the Tea Party wanted to lynch blacks from trees. In February, Representative Maxine Waters (D., Calif.) exclaimed, “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.”
A number of celebrities have joined the “white”-labeling chorus. The legendary actor James Earl Jones opined: “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. My grandmother was part Cherokee, Choctaw Indian, part black, she hated everybody, and she taught all of her children and grandchildren to be racist, to hate white people and to distrust black people.”
The popular actor Morgan Freeman, who for years resented racial identity politics, weighed in last fall on the supposedly new epidemic of white racism: “What’s, what does that, what underlines that? ‘Screw the country. We’re going to whatever we do to get this black man, we can, we’re going to do whatever we can to get this black man outta here.’” More recently Freeman ventured into the field of racial genetics and decided that Barack Obama was not a “black man” after all: “First thing that always pops into my head regarding our president is that all of the people who are setting up this barrier for him, they just conveniently forget that Barack had a mama, and she was white — very white American, Kansas, middle of America.” Freeman then said, “There was no argument about who he is or what he is. America’s first black president hasn’t arisen yet. He’s not America’s first black president — he’s America’s first mixed-race president.”
Chris Rock in incoherent fashion has sounded off a lot recently about race. Of Obama, he said, “If I want to talk to him, I can call him. Dude, being the first black anything sucks.” On the Fourth of July, Rock tweeted, “Happy white peoples independence day the slaves weren’t free but I’m sure they enjoyed fireworks.” Cher tweeted illiterately of the supposed Republican war on women, “No prenatal care For women who can’t afford 2care of themselves& their babies & theres more ! F— THESE OLD WHITE MEN who couldnt laid.”
In part the new emphasis on “white” takes its cue from the us/them themes that have been voiced by the president himself and members of his administration. In 2010, Obama appeared in a Democratic National Committee video in which he urged his supporters to make sure that “the young people, African-Americans, Latinos, and women who powered our victory in 2008 stand together once again.” Right before the 2010 midterm elections, Obama addressed an audience in Philadelphia, charging that Republicans “are counting on black folks staying home.” He went further still with Latinos, calling on them to “punish our enemies” — in the light of his opponents’ “cynical attempt to discourage Latinos from voting.”
All this race-baiting follows the Henry Louis Gates incident, the Trayvon Martin editorializing, and Eric Holder’s growing corpus of racial commentary — from saying America is a “nation of cowards” on matters of race to accusing his congressional overseers of racist payback against himself and the president.
For whom is this new staged anger at “whites” calibrated?
Surprisingly, I think most likely the independent swing voters. For all the talk of softer support in minority communities, Obama will probably win huge majorities among them, comparable to those of 2008. He might increase voter turnout by revving up fears of white racism, but in general he has few worries over the minority vote.
In contrast, Obama will not do well with the so-called working white voters, and apparently has written them off; he has few worries that the current “white” obsession can do much more damage among the “clingers.” But among moderate independents, the Obama campaign is seeking to brand Romney as someone well beyond the mainstream. If the Obama labeling campaign is successful, voting for Romney will mean becoming socially unacceptable; it will be tantamount to embracing a Neanderthal sort of mindset that opposes Obama not on his disastrous economic policies but simply because of his race.
The key to such stigmatization is to Palinize Romney — not merely as a near-felon who lies on federal disclosure forms; not just as an international financial pirate who avoids taxes through overseas scams; not simply as 1-percenter who has a car elevator in his house; and not even as a near-murderer who supposedly likes to fire innocent men and throw their cancer-stricken wives out into the street without health care.
Well beyond even all that, Romney must be portrayed as something like a Bull Connor or a David Duke. If Obama can stigmatize Romney voters as racists and “white” supremacists, then perhaps he can peel away 3 to 5 percent of the critical independents, who desperately fear being associated with a reactionary racist.
In short, until the election of Barack Obama, “white” was an increasingly rare designation. Intermarriage, integration, and assimilation were making race itself an irrelevant consideration. That notion was what Barack Obama correctly assessed would get him elected — and, now, exploding that notion is what he thinks will get him reelected.
It’s that simple.