“ Hope ever tells us tomorrow will be better. ” –Tibullus
In 2007, then-Senator Obama addressed a black audience in Virginia with a decidedly uncharacteristic accent. Whether you would describe the affected patois as “Southern” or “African American Vernacular”, you might wonder how it arose in a man raised by white Midwesterners in the multicultural milieus of the Pacific. In this peculiar vernacular, the junior U.S. senator from Illinois forcefully implicates racism in the government’s disappointing response to Hurricane Katrina, including some opposition to a Stafford Act waiver. Cue shock and indignation on the Right; eye-rolling and dismissal on the Left—everybody accuses everybody of race-baiting. Not that any of this is new.
To the annoyance of conservatives, Obama condemned opposition to the Stafford Act waiver for New Orleans while himself voting—as part of a superminority—for the situation he lambasted. I’ll grant that he prioritized ending the Iraq War over relief for New Orleans families, but 80 of his Senate colleagues chose to vote for that relief. More to the point, the effort did not want for funding. More money was spent rebuilding New Orleans than for Hurricane Andrew—one of the costliest storms in history—and 9/11 combined. If anything, the city is expected to become safer, more sustainable, and economically stronger than it was before Katrina.
So why all the fuss over government racism—which Obama has since disavowed? I don’t believe for a second that the president is a racist. Like me, he grew up well-supported in an ethnically diverse world, and he went on to enjoy international friends and interracial romances. Thus, this cynical 2007 episode would read as yet another chapter in the amusing political history of Sudden Onset Southernism but for the subsequent events of the 2008 Democratic primary.
Obama needed to win South Carolina in order to capitalize on momentum from Iowa. Hillary Clinton had been substantially more popular among black voters, who comprise a lion’s share of the Democratic electorate, and Obama needed a strategy to secure them and white liberals. Thus, succored by a gleefully tendentious national media (led by MSNBC and the New York Times), Obama and his allies began to discover racism everywhere. From Hillary’s praise of civil rights legislation to Bill’s electoral comparison that didn’t upset Jesse Jackson to the willfully misrepresented “fairy tale” comment about opposition to the Iraq War, the friends of Obama ensured that any remarks critical of him were inexorably tied to racism. Thereafter, the senator from Illinois began to lock up the black vote from South Carolina onward. But the campaign was far from over.
Not satisfied with merely slandering the Clintons, Obama’s network targeted Hillary’s black supporters in a concerted effort to “pester, intimidate, [and] question [their] blackness”. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri was pointedly accused, by a sitting U.S. Congressman, of conspiring to obstruct history by preventing the election of the first black president; others, including Trenton’s first black mayor Doug Palmer, were publicly threatened with primary challenges for standing by their beliefs. So deep were the primary scars on a campaign whose top officials were black women, that when John McCain’s campaign later criticized the future president for playing the race card, the Clintons and their diverse supporters—who were campaigning for the Democratic ticket—were silent.
As has assuredly never been mentioned before, the racism charges only ever stick when wielded against Obama’s opponents. So when Geraldine Ferraro said that Obama benefited from being a black man—instead of a white man or a woman of any color—at a time when the country would celebrate this, she faced ongoing derision, and the Obama camp demanded she step down from the Clinton campaign. By contrast, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid noted that Obama would benefit from being a “light-skinned” black man “with no Negro dialect” at a time when the country would celebrate this, the president quickly forgave him, and the media followed suit.
Given all this, it is hardly surprising that the rise of the Tea Party and the resurgence of economic conservatism have been doggedly plagued by persistent charges of social antagonism. Saddled with the weight of corporate bailouts, failed stimulus, imploding entitlements, and exploding deficits, the American people have demanded change, and the Left—from the administration to the media—has cried racism. Now that President Obama is in danger of losing reelection, the media is once again promulgating stories of Republican racism. These incidents are certainly despicable. And it should go without saying that they are no more representative of the GOP than liberal shenanigans are of the Democratic Party. But instead, we’re to the point where a conservative can’t even be indignant over attacks on his father without being derided for racial privilege, even as the president dismisses Mitt Romney as an alien.
I’m not interested in squabbling over the fringe agendas of extremists and the gaffe-prone in either party’s coalition. Nor do I care to suffer ostensibly serious people sifting endlessly through otherwise reasonable statements for hints of coded bigotry. Like most Americans, I want leadership that will right this ship of state and put us firmly on the course of progress and recovery. Indeed, the President beckons us to move Forward, and that sounds like a wonderful idea.
I hope he looks forward to retirement. I hope, someday, my generation will, too.