Race Matters Even When It Doesn’t: The President and his Critics

The debate about whether racism fuels opposition to President Obama gives us the chance to think about the role that race and, more broadly, prejudice play in our political life.  Here are some provisional thoughts on this controversial topic.

A few days ago I heard a group of white Alabama businessmen on the radio complaining that their disagreements with the President’s policies were often assumed to be rooted in racism.  They said that one of the worst things about Rep Joe Wilson’s outburst at the Joint Session was that it reinforced the perception that the Presidents critics are a bunch of angry white men.

You could hear their unspoken complaint — it’s just not fair, we’re decent people, yet when we criticize the President our arguments are dismissed because we’re assumed to be bigots.

This is not a new phenomenon in America, and it’s not just a Republican problem.

Remember the remarks made by former President Clinton during the Democratic primary in South Carolina?  His attacks on then candidate Obama were characterized as racist, a charge he furiously denied as he in turn blasted the Obama camp for playing “the race card.”  And if any Democrat makes a run at Obama in the 2012 primaries, the party will again have to wrestle with this issue.

The country went through a similar experience in 1960, when Senator John Kennedy’s primary and general election opponents worried about how to attack him without appearing to be anti-Catholic.  Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon both complained that some of JFK’s people cynically turned their policy disagreements with him into accusations of religious prejudice.

All of this reminds me of a story that an American journalist told about an experience he had in Japan.  During his stay there he discovered that many Japanese had a slightly prejudiced view of Americans, assuming among other things that we are lazy.  One day, for reasons he could not control, he was late for a meeting.  As he opened the door to join his colleagues, he saw one Japanese man lean over to the fellow next to him and point to his watch.

The journalist  reports that he was immediately furious.  He assumed the guy was in effect saying: “See? Typical American — always late.”

Upon reflection, he realized he had no way of knowing what was on that gentleman’s mind.  Maybe he had just received the watch as a gift, and he was showing it off to the guy next to him.  Or asking him, “Hey, I just bought this for $125.00, what do you think, is it worth it?”

The journalist’s point was that prejudice shapes perceptions of the world, even when in a particular instance prejudice isn’t at work.  The Japanese man tapping his watch may not have assumed Americans are lazy — but it would nevertheless be reasonable for an American walking late into that room to wonder if he did.

So back to the President’s critics: What features of today’s political climate might lead some people to wonder about their racial views?

Well, Rep Wilson shouts out that the President is a liar.  Let’s assume that if we knew Rep Wilson personally, we would be convinced that he is not a racist.  Why might some nevertheless wonder if he is one?

He hails from South Carolina, the first state to secede.  The state where Sen McCain’s 2000 presidential bid was undone by rumors someone spread there that he fathered a black child.

And Rep Wilson’s first political job was working for Congressman Floyd Spence.  Who was he?

Mr Spence was a state lawmaker who, on April 14, 1962 (the anniversary of the Lincoln assassination – how is that for a coincidence?), switched parties and became a Republican, claiming that the national Democrats had become too liberal.

Spence’s party switch was part of a mass exodus of southern Democrats to the Republican Party in the 1960s, mainly because they disagreed with the Democrats’ commitment to civil rights.

In 1980, facing a tough opponent, Congressman Spence hired Lee Atwater to run his campaign, and Atwater authorized a “push-poll” — where they informed voters that his opponent was a member of the NAACP.

Rep Wilson also worked for Senator Strom Thurmond who, in 1948, ran for the presidency as a leader of the Dixiecrats, a party dedicated to racial segregation.

What other factors in today’s political climate might lead some to wonder about the racial views of the President’s critics?  How about these:

  • This summer, when a gorilla escaped from a local zoo, Rusty Depass, another Republican from South Carolina and a former Chairman of the State’s Election Commission, joked that it was probably one of Michelle Obama’s ancestors.
  • The Republican Women’s Club in San Bernardino County, California printed a picture of a food stamp with Obama’s picture on it, surrounded by pictures of watermelons, fried chicken, and ribs.
  • Chip Saltsman, one of the finalists in the most recent search for the new Chairman of the National Republican Committee, mailed out a CD containing the song, “Obama the Magic Negro.”
  • Fox News described the Obama’s fist bump as “a terrorist fist jab,” and referred to Mrs. Obama as then Senator Obama’s “baby momma” — which the Urban Dictionary defines as the mother of your child whom you did not marry and with whom you are no longer involved.
  • Signs at recent Tea Parties depicted the President as a witch doctor. According to some reports, the President was drawn in stereotypical African tribal dress, complete with a feathered head dress and a bone through his nose.

Now perhaps an argument can be made that none of these activities are rooted in racism.  And in fact if you search the web you’ll find such arguments.  Indeed, many Republicans claim to be shocked and outraged that anyone would attribute such motives to them.

What are we to make of such claims?  It seems to me they reflect a fundamental misunderstanding about racism’s legacy.

Just as with our journalist’s experience in Japan, the history of prejudice creates a climate that shapes how people interpret the world.

Race matters — even when you’re convinced it doesn’t.



4 Responses

  1. You have said that better than anybody else I have heard. Well done!

    • Alex,
      How great to hear from you!
      And thanks for the compliment…………
      I like your podcast suggestion — we’re still, obviously, in the
      early stages of finding our way in these in terms of format — length,
      style, etc.
      Feel free to pass on our site info to any others you think might appreciate
      reading/listening — must be a cure for insomnia, if nothing else!


  2. First let me say, I’m 31, I live in Colorado, I voted for obama, and I am not a racist in any way…
    My family has been in SC since they got their land there for free from an english king in 1626.
    You’re statement “He hails from South Carolina, the first state to secede” in regard to racism, is ignorant to say the least, and practically discredits your whole article. I am not disputing the racism of the individuals you have mentioned in your article, since I do not know their particular views exactly. However, any intelligent person, with any decent American historical education has to question the argument, and all too often stated as fact viewpoint that the American Civil War was based on slavery. You have taken this to some strange new level where the reason for SC to secede was racism. Saying it was for slavery is an understandable confusion because you may have been taught that in elementary school and never looked any farther into it. But saying it was caused by racism is just plain foolish. Four members of my family were at the vote to secede at the church in downtown Columbia, SC. They all voted to secede, they all fought in the war, two died in the war, two fought the full length of the war. Not a single one of them owned a single slave, before, during, or after the war. Several African Americans fought alongside them in the war. I have read journals written by those ancestors to prove it. The war was about states rights my friend, and overwhelming federal government control. Please do not dishonor my relatives by grouping them into some “racist” category. There were just as many racist people in every part of the US during that time. If you were as well traveled as I, you would also know there are extreme racists in nearly every corner of this country today. I have been in small towns in upstate NY on the border of Canada, as well as in the backwoods of western PA, or eastern OH and seen confederate flags stuck on pickup trucks. You can bet your life it’s not about “heritage” for those folks. The stereotypes you project here onto southerners, and South Carolinians, is just as bad as the stereotypes you are trying to expose others for projecting.

  3. […] causes edition In Politics, State & Local on October 9, 2009 at 6:31 pm In response to Dan’s recent post about whether opposition to Pres. Obama is fueled by racism, commenter Captain Heise took offense […]

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