There's a portion of America that has insisted, despite ample evidence to the contrary, that the nomination and election of the first black president was proof that we've reached a post-racial society. The President's status as a biracial man largely raised in the Midwest was seen as a "safe" black man -- not of the traditional civil rights leadership often seen as an ornery bunch mucking in society by many. He was not the descendant of West African slaves, an origin that made many American blacks of that extraction suspicious of his racial fidelity.
But as the campaign wore on, we saw display after sad display of outright racism and bigotry (documented in dozens of Blend posts) emerge, stoked by the McCain/Palin campaign and the noisemakers on the right. But the vile behavior seemed to come from a demographic we all knew was below the surface -- people who would never vote for a black man under any circumstance. It all died down for a millisecond -- a period of calm after the inauguration, but the full-out attack was cooking as the anger at the reality that Barack Obama is President sunk in when he started affecting policy and approach to governing.
I love it that Salon Editor-in-Chief Joan Walsh doesn't mind stepping on the landmines. She went on the O'Reilly Factor in June and made the Faux News bully's head explode over the Tiller assassination, so you know that she'll likely go toe-to-toe with the knuckledraggers over her piece today, "The Blackening of the president." She lays it out there.
The racially tinged debates over Obama's appointing the first Latina to the Supreme Court and his politically unwise foray into the Henry Louis Gates flap, combined with organized GOP opposition, seem to have done what Obama's political foes could never manage in 2008: They've blackened Obama, in both senses of the word -- simultaneously diminishing his support and emphasizing his ethnicity. Simply by raising consciousness about the president's race and associating him with radical identity politics, they've diminishing his standing among a large swath of the public. (Gabe Winant has more of the statistical detail here.)
I started thinking opponents were blackening Obama back in July, after the racial drama of the Sotomayor hearings, when poor oppressed Caucasians like Sens. Jeff Sessions, Tom Coburn and Lindsey Graham made it sound like it was open season on white guys. Then came the racial morality play of the Gates arrest -- Did race or class matter most? Should Obama have stayed out of it? -- which gave way to the screaming of the Birthers, the angry gun-toting town-hall haters, the shrieking of Palinites over "death panels."
I wrote about the role race played in these ginned-up controversies at the time: Birthers and Deathers (who tended to be the same people) were focused on marginalizing Obama as scary, "the other." Race was central to their fears, from the Birthers' obsession with Obama's literal origins as the product of miscegenation; to the Deathers and the Town Hellers' insistence that healthcare reform was, in Glenn Beck's idiotic formulation, Obama's idea of "reparations" for slavery. The cries of "socialism" were just another way to mark him as "other," scary and foreign. Watching scenes of shrieking, sobbing people pleading to "take our country back," it was hard not to ask, From who? The president who got a larger share of the vote than Ronald Reagan in 1980 or George Bush in 2000? What exactly is it that makes this particular commander in chief an interloper?
Finally, when Republicans began objecting to Obama's speaking to schoolkids last week, you couldn't ignore the racism: Listening to some parents' expressing actual fear of having Obama beamed into their kids' classrooms, it was hard to imagine such hysteria being inspired by a white president. It would never happen.
Seriously, one woman was interviewed on NPR and said that the President was going to have subliminal messages in his speech to indoctrinate children. Can you imagine her saying that if Joe Biden was reading the exact same speech? Speaking of subliminal...
There may still be some subliminal racial discomfort in that growing white voter doubt, because all of the extreme right-wing questions about Obama -- Is he an outsider? Does he care about people like us? Is he competent to run the country? Can he be trusted? ("You lie!") Is he dangerous (we can't trust him with our children!)? -- echo the most crippling stereotypes that afflict black men in America. (As I write I'm listening to a woman at the Washington tea party on Saturday screaming, "We will not let Obama ram socialism down our throats!" Where to start?) It's a cruel irony that this conciliatory, courteous, accommodating black man still faces claims that he's a scary menace to America.
Joan Walsh notes that while Bill Clinton had to endure the constant blasts from the right, the anti-Clinton hysteria didn't generate marches on Washington or outlandish, chaotic town halls with people packing heat as intimidation props. She also wants him to get back into the battling campaign mode of 2008. I'm wary of this advice, as Barack Obama is in an odd, uncomfortable position -- he's the best person to call out the lies and incredible conspiracy theories, but he can never truly show anger lest he display the "angry Negro" to the masses. He has to walk a delicate line that hampers him from drop-kicking the foolishness out of the door. His overly concilatory behavior is maddening because so many of us feel there isn't any genuine desire for compromise on the other side of the aisle. Those Republicans are sore losers of epic proportions and they want another crack at leadership, even as they have FAIL written all over recent history when they had their turn at the wheel.