President Obama and the race card

President Obama at the Next Generation Solar Energy Center in Arcadia, Fla.

Ever since Barack Obama announced his candidacy for President, he has been accused on a fairly regular basis of “playing the race card.”  This is a great example of the principle of accusing your opponent of the very thing of which you are guilty.

It is Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Andrew Brietbart and the rest of the radical right, not President Obama, who are the ones who are trying to make every issue a racial issue.

Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly said during the campaign that Obama was a threat to “the white power structure that you and I belong to.”  Rush Limbaugh said Obama’s election was a form of affirmative action. Glenn Beck has said repeatedly, based on nothing at all, that Obama is a “racist” who “has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.”  His economic stimulus plan, his health reform plan and his other initiatives have been called a form of “reparations” or “affirmative action.”

Black kids and white kids get into a fight on a school bus, and Rush Limbaugh said this is “Obama’s America.”  After the Haitian earthquake, Limbaugh said the reason Obama ordered aid to the stricken population was to merely to boost his credibility with “the light-skinned and dark-skinned black community.” Glenn Beck said during the Gulf oil spill that the problem is that Obama “hates white CEOs.”  Limbaugh said Michelle Obama’s expensive vacation in Spain escapes criticism because of a feeling “it’s only fair that people of color get a taste of the wealth of America.”

The latest and most absurd attack on Obama, by Commentary magazine, is based on an interview he gave to the South African Broadcasting Corp. about al Qaeda in Africa, in which he said terrorist organizations “do not regard African life as valuable in and of itself.”  Supposedly this shows that Obama only cares about attacks on black people, not on white people.

In this game, President Obama has no race card to play.  Whenever there is a conflict with a black person on one side and a white person on the other, he tries to keep out of it, even if the black person is clearly in the right, or a valuable political ally.  His enemies chip away at him, week by week and month by month. If he were to argue back, it would just reinforce the meme of white vs. black.  It is a lose-lose situation.

Barack Obama is not the first President to be the target of unrelenting attack.  It is not as if the right-wing media treated Bill and Hillary Clinton, Al Gore or John Kerry with kid gloves.  But the use of race as a wedge issue is more than a problem for President Obama, it is a problem for the country as a whole.  Framing every issue as a question of white against black is deeply divisive.  It puts at risk all the progress toward racial tolerance of the past 40 or 50 years.  Unless there is a push-back, the conflict could become violent, as in northern Ireland or the USA itself in earlier eras.

As an example of what President Obama is up against, take the case of Prof. Louis Henry Gates, a Harvard professor, who was arrested on trumped-up charges as a result of talking back to a police officer in his own home.  At the end of a long press conference on health care reform, President Obama was asked his opinion of the incident, and, being tired, he expressed his real opinion. He said it was “stupid” – which it was.

That comment overshadowed everything he had said about health care.  In the uproar that followed, the only thing that seemed to matter was that Prof. Gates is black, the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, is white, and President Obama was siding with a black person against a white person.  The President quickly backed off and tried to defuse the situation with the “beer summit.”

A more serious example was the smear of ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now).  ACORN is a 40-year-old black-led non-profit social justice organization dedicated to organizing and helping poor people.  It was one of the main organizations involved in registering poor black voters.

ACORN was the victim of a sting operation by right-wing activists named James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles, who made videotapes, which supposedly showed O’Keefe in pimp costume getting advice from ACORN staffers on his prostitution business.  It was posted on Andrew Brietbart’s web site and pushed heavily by Fox News.

All the prosecutors and official agencies that investigated the case concluded that (1) the tapes were doctored and (2) ACORN did nothing illegal.  But the false charges are still widely accepted as fact.

A more justified criticism of ACORN was its failure to supervise temporary employees in its voter registration drive, who were paid by the number of voters they registered.  Four of them submitted bogus forms, made out to “Mickey Mouse” or “John Q. Public” or other fake names.  Once they had the forms, ACORN was obligated to turn them in (although the obviously bogus forms were flagged); otherwise there would be a possibility they could throw out the Republican registration forms and only submit the Democratic forms.  This was an inconvenience, maybe a serious one, to local election boards, but it didn’t mean that any “Mickey Mouse” got to vote.

Congress voted to cut off funding for ACORN’s voter registration drive, which decision was overturned by a lower federal court and upheld by an appeals court.  This was only 10 percent of ACORN’s voter registration funding, and this was only part of its overall program, so it wouldn’t have been fatal in itself. But the uproar caused private donations to dry up, and ACORN has disbanded.

The significance of this is that the Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress made no attempt to speak up for ACORN, even though the voter turnout of poor, black people can make the difference to their success or failure.  They would rather lose an important base of support than be seen as defending black people.

The same syndrome operated in the case of Shirley Sherrod, a black woman who was an official of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  She gave a speech to the NAACP about how, despite the murder of her father by white people who sent scot-free, she had come to recognize the common humanity of blacks and whites.  Andrew Brietbart posted a truncated version of the video on his web site which made it appear as if she said the exact opposite of what she did say.

The NAACP immediately repudiated her, and she was fired by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, who presumably felt that was what President Obama would want him to do.  In this case, the distortion was so obvious that it was revealed immediately, and Obama and the NAACP apologized.

In right-wing commentary on the Internet, there is no feeling of regret that an innocent woman has been wronged.  Instead the commentators gloat at the NAACP’s and Obama administration’s weakness, and treat the whole affair as a great victory.

They see the attack on Shirley Sherrod as justified retaliation for Mark Williams’ loss of his position as spokesman for the Tea Party Express, after he was criticized for a tasteless piece of  “satire” showing the NAACP embracing slavery and welfare over freedom and work.

The Tea Party movement, to its credit, repudiated Williams.  To the hard core right wing, this was regarded as a defeat.  Their attitude was “you got one of ours, we’ll get one of yours, and it doesn’t matter who.”  This is tribal thinking at its worst.

President Obama has no good options here.  I would like him, on these issues as on others, to be more of a fighter.  But there are limits to what he, a black man, can say and do without alienating white voters.

Successful strong-willed black men sometimes say they have to turn down the voltage of their personalities when they are around white people.  Otherwise they arouse all the subconscious fears that many white people have of black men.  I don’t think Obama’s calm, cool personality is an act.  I think he is what he seems to be.  But I also think a black man with the combative personality of a Harry Truman, Teddy Roosevelt or George W. Bush could never get elected to national office.

Click on Why Michelle Obama vacationed in Spain for background on the trip on AOL’s Politics Daily web site.

Click on Latest right-wing attack for a report on President Obama’s interview by the South Africa Broadcasting Corp. by Greg Sargent in the Washington Post.

Click on White Privilege? for my earlier comments on the Gates-Crowley affair.

Click on ACORN and the “liberal media” for my earlier comments on the ACORN affair.

Click on Context, lies and videotape: the real ACORN story for Rachel Maddow’s broadcast on the unedited ACORN tapes.

Click on ACORN Wikipedia entry for background on ACORN.

Click on Fox News, lies and videotape for my earlier comments on the Shirley Sherrod affair

Click on The Full Shirley Sherrod Video to hear her full speech to the NAACP.

Click on “Dear Mr. Lincoln” for the text of Mark Williams’ “satirical” response to NAACP criticism. Williams took the statement down from his own web site, but it is reproduced by Ta-Nehisi Coates on his Atlantic Monthly web log.

Click on New Black Panther Case is “small potatoes” for background on another overblown attempt to make white people think there is a black threat.

Please note that I have not accused anybody of racism.  I do not think that being against President Obama makes you a racist.  Nor does the fact that the majority of white people and the majority of black people often vote on opposite sites make either group racist.  It merely means that people with dark skins experience American life in a different way than people with light skins.

The radical right is not asserting that black people are an inferior race, or that they should not enjoy the same rights as white people.  What the radical right is doing is to stir up antagonism between white people and black people for trivial reasons or for no reason, which in the long run hurts us all.

P.S. [9/23/10]  Pat Buchanan had this to say on The American Conservative web log: –

Like conservatives in the GOP, blacks in the Democratic Party are the old reliables. They do not cut and run. They were there for Clinton during impeachment, and as others depart, they are there for Obama.

But while conservatives always get one of their own on every national ticket, and all of their own on the Supreme Court, African-Americans seem to settle for a few back-of-the-bus Cabinet seats.

Say what you will about the right. But if their party took them for granted the way Democratic presidents take black constituents for granted in plum appointments, there’d be a whole lot of shakin’ going on.

via The American Conservative.

Of course if President Obama ever did do anything that could be interpreted as preferential treatment of black American citizens, Pat Buchanan would be the first to tell white people they should be outraged.

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One Response to “President Obama and the race card”

  1. grahamsoc Says:

    oh…found this blog post after clicking on the one that got on freshly pressed. this post is actually whats missing in much of the news stories that rely on sound bites – a well argued, fact driven, point about something. i try to do something similar, but i have not reached this level. this is one of the best blog posts I have seen in a while.


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