Racism After the First Black President
The GOP has become viciously racist, while Democrats follow Obama’s lead in skirting the issue.
In our September 2009 cover story, “The ‘Post-Racial’ President,” Salim Muwakkil questioned the talking points of those all too eager to declare racism resolved:
With the nation’s first black president in the White House, some pundits have started employing the narrative of a “post-racial” America to frame events. In this view, Barack Obama’s election has leveled the playing field and obviated the struggle for racial equality.
Now, 10 years after Obama was sworn in, the presidency of Donald Trump has brought the fallacy of a “post-racial” America into sharp relief. Trump’s equivocation after the fascist march in Charlottesville, his ongoing attack on Black athletes and activists, his almost exclusively white cabinet and his racist immigration policies make it clear that racism continues to define the American experience.
Part of the success of anti-racism is that it stigmatized public expressions of racism. But, ironically, the election of our first Black president was simply too much for some Americans, and a backlash began brewing. Muwakkil quoted culture critic and author Henry Giroux saying that racism in the Obama era is different from the historical “crude racism with its biological referents and pseudo-scientific legitimations.” This new breed of racism, Giroux wrote, “cynically recodes itself within the vocabulary of the civil rights movement, invoking the language of Martin Luther King Jr., to argue that individuals should be judged by the ‘content of their character’ and not by the color of their skin.”
Giroux’s statement differentiating “crude racism” from subtler forms could not be written today, given not only the rise of the alt-right but also the mainstreaming of the rhetoric of white supremacy and Trump’s wink-and-a-nod toward white nationalism. The president himself has self-identified as a “nationalist.” He didn’t have to add “white” — his supporters knew what that meant. With his demagoguery and his “birther” campaign, among other racist schemes, Donald Trump gave permission to the brewing backlash against Obama.
Muwakkil anticipated this resurgence, writing:
Faced with a shrinking demographic base and diverging cultural trends, many Republicans have concluded that a return to the politics of white resentment may be the party’s best shot at viability.
Obama himself understood this danger, Muwakkil wrote, and did his best to avoid giving fodder to the Right:
[Obama] must walk a narrow tightrope slick with cultural biases. As America’s first black president, he must downplay black Americans’ specific needs or he’ll lose his political balance. In many ways Obama has played along, scrupulously avoiding comment on racial matters since he began his presidential campaign.
There was one exception, Muwakkil noted — Obama’s “mild rebuke of the Cambridge police” who mistook Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates for a burglar of his own home and, when Gates berated the officer called to investigate, arrested him for “disorderly conduct”:
Obama was atypically unequivocal in July when he criticized the Cambridge, Mass., police for “acting stupidly” in the arrest of Henry Louis Gates … He also raised a few eyebrows by linking the Gates arrest to the historical problem of racial profiling.
His unexpected response to the question sparked a torrent of criticism from rightwingers … Rush Limbaugh said Obama’s comments were a case of “a black president trying to destroy a white policeman.” Fox News’ Glenn Beck accused the president of being racist, saying Obama’s words revealed a “deep seated hatred for white people or the white culture.”
Obama eventually capitulated with what became known as the White House “beer summit,” a private, cordial meeting to which he invited both Gates and the white officer, putting them on equal footing. In doing so, he was in keeping with the diffidence of Democrats in the face of systemic racism.
Democrats have shied away from advocating for policies that directly help Black/Brown communities. In Chicago, for example, the last two Democratic mayors have opposed living wage initiatives. Further, the national Democratic Party has been surprisingly weak in its response to voter suppression targeted at people of color. Even as Trump has doubled down on racism and xenophobia, Democratic leaders have not produced a bold vision for racial justice. Most of the political energy around this has come from the progressive wing of the party.
During recent congressional elections, party leadership preferred centrist candidates (who tend to eschew race) over more progressive candidates who wanted tough police accountability and an end to mass incarceration. Right after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her congressional seat, Nancy Pelosi expressed sadness and dismay that her colleague — a veteran white male Democrat — had lost the election, and she dismissed the race as “local” with no national resonance. Pelosi’s loyalty to a colleague may be understandable. It also profoundly misreads the moment. Ocasio-Cortez has prioritized the issues of mass incarceration, voter suppression and immigrant rights, which reverberate nationally and have huge racial overtones — and should be Democratic priorities. With a shared history of being targets of social control, Black and Brown people have reason to work in coalition, as progressive candidates in both communities have emphasized.
Today, the relative success of progressive candidates who did not avoid race — such as Stacey Abrams, Andrew Gillum and Beto O’Rouke, all running in the South—seem to contradict Obama’s reticent approach. Candidates like Abrams have revealed a reservoir of white voters who are ready to join in coalition with Black and Brown people to advance a better racial discourse. They have transcended the demands for “equal justice” that defined the defensive, old Democratic order and are instead speaking the language of “equity.” The new breed of progressives understands that the backlash comes from the Right, and the way to fight it is not to placate but to mobilize your base and build coalitionswith like-minded communities.