Politics & Policy

Oprah, Obama, and the Racism Dodge

Orpah Winfrey at the Los Angeles premiere of The Butler.
Are the 54 percent of Americans who disapprove of Obama all racist?

In Britain to promote her film The Butler, Oprah Winfrey gave an interview to the BBC last week. Not surprisingly, she promoted her movie about race relations in the White House with comments about race relations and the White House.

The BBC’s Will Gompertz asked: “Has it ever crossed your mind that some of the treatment of Obama and the challenges he’s faced and some of the reporting he’s received is because he’s an African American?”

Now there’s a fresh take.

#ad#Either Gompertz has been handcuffed to a radiator in someone’s windowless basement for the last five years or, more likely, he was riffing off the suggested questions Winfrey’s PR team handed out to interviewers. Neither explanation would lift the stench of staleness from the question — or the answer.

Winfrey responded: “Has it ever crossed my mind? . . . Probably it’s crossed my mind more times than it’s crossed your mind. Just the level of disrespect. When the senator yelled out, ‘You’re a liar’ — remember that? Yeah, I think that there is a level of disrespect for the office that occurs, and that occurs in some cases and maybe even many cases because he’s African American.”

Now it’s true that Representative Joe Wilson (R., S.C.) should not have shouted “You lie!” (whether or not it was a lie) at the president during his health-care address to Congress. But the evidence that Wilson was motivated by racism is simply nonexistent.

However, a lack of evidence hasn’t stopped countless liberals, editorial boards, pundits, and stand-up comics, not to mention administration officials, from propagating the idea that Obama’s problems boil down to the irrational bigotry of his opponents.

Looking for examples of this relentless smear is like hunting for sand at the beach. In July, Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius told the NAACP that the same people who opposed the Civil Rights Act and anti-lynching laws were opposing Obamacare. Representative John Lewis (D., Ga.) made similar arguments. And from what I can tell, so has virtually every host on MSNBC (except for Joe Scarborough). In one way or another they subscribe to Chris Matthews’s view that opposition to Obama and Obamacare is driven by faith in white supremacy.

It’s all very stupid and lazy. When President Clinton tried to transform health care in the 1990s, conservatives opposed the effort hammer and tongs. But when they mount the same battle with an even more liberal president who happens to be black, the only logical conclusion is that racism is afoot. George W. Bush is pretty white, and he was shown ample disrespect. You can look it up.

This is not to say there aren’t racists — even in the GOP — who don’t like the president and his agenda. It’s just that you don’t need to leap to racism to understand the criticisms of Obama and his agenda. If the man were white, the argument about Obamacare wouldn’t change one iota, at least not for conservatives.

For liberals, it’s not so clear. Since Democrats steamrolled the Affordable Care Act into law, its defenders have acted as if any opposition to the law is irrational, extremist, absurd, and, of course, racist. They gave themselves license to dismiss all inconvenient facts simply by impugning the motives of those who point them out.

Just days before HealthCare.gov crashed on takeoff, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), who has often suggested that the president’s opponents are bigots, railed on the Senate floor: “Obamacare has been the law for four years. Why don’t they get a life and talk about something else?”

“We are going to accept nothing that relates to Obamacare,” he added. “Let them find something else to be weird about.”

In recent polls, 58 percent of Americans have a negative view of the health-care law, 54 percent disapprove of Obama, and 50 percent think he isn’t honest or trustworthy. Are they all racists and weirdos?

Winfrey, a billionaire twice over thanks in no small part to her popularity among whites, told the BBC that the older generation of bigots may “just have to die” before America can get past racism. In 2012, 60 percent of voters under 30 voted for Obama. Now more than half view him negatively. I hope Winfrey doesn’t think they need to die too.

— Jonah Goldberg is the author of The Tyranny of Clichés, now on sale in paperback. You can write to him by e-mail at goldbergcolumn@gmail.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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