If the Trayvon Martin case reminds us that race remains the great unresolved issue in our national life, it reminds us, too, of how illusory was the hope that Barack Obama might serve as a one-man antidote to America’s long history of racial division. More than three years into Obama’s presidency, ill feeling between the races is more prevalent than at any time in recent memory—a clear result of his style and the substance of his governance.
The question is whether the opposition party and its candidate will dare say so.
In what promises to be an ugly campaign, already the Obama team has gone all-in on class warfare, and there’s little reason to think they will shy away from seeking to demonize the other side on race and ethnicity. Indeed, talking up race has been a reflex for some in this administration from the start. Less than a month after Inauguration Day, Attorney General Eric Holder infamously derided his fellow citizens as “essentially a nation of cowards” for their reluctance to engage the subject to his satisfaction. “If we are to make progress in this area,” he intoned, “we must feel comfortable enough with one another and tolerant enough of each other to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us.”
Holder and such other Obama appointees as former “green-jobs czar” Van Jones and FCC “diversity czar” Mark Lloyd left no doubt about the kind of conversation they had in mind: one focusing on persistent white racism as the overriding impediment to black economic and social progress. Holder in particular has continually invoked racism to counter criticism of administration policies, even managing to cast criticism of his department’s calamitously bungled Fast and Furious gun-running scheme as racially motivated.
The president himself, while more measured, has likewise needlessly stirred the racial pot, notably by weighing in on volatile situations before the facts were in, endorsing the familiar liberal narrative of white culpability and black victimhood. Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates’s 2009 arrest for attempting to break into his own home prompted a presidential declaration that the Cambridge police had “acted stupidly,” with Obama citing “a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately.” Even worse was the president’s pointed observation in late March, as the furor over the killing of Trayvon Martin reached a crescendo, that “if I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” The remark could only serve to inflame, as indeed it did, an already tense situation.
While these episodes are rarely identified as pivotal moments in the Obama presidency, they—as well as Obama’s appointees—have left no doubt that this would-be “post-racial” administration is fixated to a remarkable degree on the specter of white racism. As Politico described a 2009 speech by the president to his supporters in the Black Congressional Caucus: he “opened with a fiery civil rights talk, ticking off racial disparities, calling for greater enforcement of civil rights laws, and saying that the new White House Office of Urban affairs is working to address inequality.”
Indeed, even while presenting himself as a uniter in 2008, Obama cast the other side as eager to exploit America’s none-too-latent racism. “We know what kind of campaign they’re going to run. They’re going to try to make you afraid,” Obama proclaimed. “They’re going to try to make you afraid of me. He’s young and inexperienced and he’s got a funny name. And did I mention he’s black?” Even Bill Clinton—hitherto accorded honorary status as America’s first black president—found himself targeted during the heat of the 2008 primaries, noting in astonishment that Obama was “playing the race card on me.”
Given this record, it would be foolish to assume that Obama’s campaign (and his most ardent supporters) will shrink from using race again this year. As if testing the waters, the president recently suggested to Spanish-language channel Univision that presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney supports racial profiling. Several days later, one of the president’s chief media enthusiasts, Chris Matthews, referred to Republicans as “the Grand Wizard crowd.” And Matthews is only one of the mainstream liberals who has lately harped on the notion that Republicans practice “dog-whistle” racism—subtly communicating to white voters a shared antipathy toward blacks in general and, in particular, toward the black man in the White House. When Romney delivered a speech in Ohio last month in front of a banner reading OBAMA ISN’T WORKING, the liberal blogosphere pounced. The slogan, wrote an indignant columnist at Mediaite, called to mind “the stereotype of the ‘lazy,’ ‘shiftless’ black man.”
For its part, the leader of the media pack, the New York Times, ran a front-page piece last week headlined “4 Years Later, Race is Still Issue for Some Voters.” While pointing out that only five of the 50 voters surveyed in mostly working-class Jefferson County, Ohio actually cited race as a consideration in how they’ll vote, the article’s author, Sabrina Tavernise, dwelt on those who did—like “Lesia Felsoci, a bank employee drinking a beer in an Applebee’s,” whom Tavernise quoted as saying of Obama: “He was like, ‘here I am, I’m black and I’m proud.’ To me, he didn’t have a platform. Black people voted him in, that’s why he won. It was black ignorance.”
“Mitt Romney, you’re a racist!” a heckler repeatedly screamed at the Republican candidate last week as he stood beside Rudy Giuliani at a New York City firehouse. Romney and his campaign had better be prepared for more of the same and much worse. For how they respond to the inevitable attacks will say much about both Romney’s political instincts and his character. Will he risk calling out the other side on its frequent and irresponsible use of the race card? Might some high-level surrogate—one GOP heavyweight leaps to mind—even challenge the narrative that casts white America as irredeemably racist and African-Americans as eternal victims? And will the campaign grasp that directly engaging Obama on the issue is a sure winner?
Judging by history, there’s not much reason for optimism. The heirs to the party of Lincoln tend to be deeply uncomfortable with issues that touch even tangentially on race, knowing full well that the same liberal Democrats and mainstream journalists who habitually give a pass to the Al Sharptons and Jesse Jacksons of the world are quick to pounce on any hint, real or imagined, of Republican “insensitivity” toward minority concerns. So eager are many in the GOP to establish their racial bona fides that they shrink from even those race-related matters that come giftwrapped as golden opportunities. As John McCain advisor Charlie Black piously told a reporter in 2008, his candidate was not about to make an issue of “somebody’s pastor, even if we might not agree with the views of the pastor.” The pastor was Jeremiah Wright, he of “God damn America” fame, in whose church McCain’s rival had sat for two decades.
McCain surely regarded his refusal to inject into the contest Obama’s long association with a renowned race-baiter and bigot as honorable. Yet he would never have passed on a comparable opportunity had his rival—or his rival’s pastor—been white. And in fact, he did seek to make an issue of Obama’s friendship with Bill Ayers.
Famously risk-averse to start with, Romney likely counts himself vulnerable on race, aware that the other side is certain to make much of his church—the one that didn’t admit blacks to the priesthood until 1978. And, yes, he is appropriately eager to keep the focus where it belongs: the economy.
Still, playing nice is not apt to be a winning strategy—not against a Chicago-bred, Saul Alinsky-inspired team that rarely hesitates to use race as a bludgeon. While it will be Romney’s instinct to avoid taking on race directly, and to characterize it as a distraction, passing up the chance to confront the other side on the issue would be both bad policy and bad politics. Attack should prompt hard counter-attack. Romney should point out that by his words and actions, this president who pledged to unite us has consistently done the opposite; and he should forcefully make the case that rather than endlessly dwell on past inequities and further empower the racial bean-counters who already hold such sway in American life, the nation’s chief executive should justly reflect our pride in having made greater and faster progress on the racial front than any nation on earth. Does anyone doubt that this is precisely what Romney, like most of the rest of us, honestly believes?
This is also why such candor would work. Most Americans have a keen sense of fairness—as well as reality—and they know full well that racial discrimination is no longer as rampant as many liberals insist. They believe in equal opportunity and a level playing field, and that no one should be either penalized or privileged by race or ethnicity.
On affirmative action, for instance, according to the most recent Rasmussen survey, just 24 percent of likely voters support racial preferences and fully 55 percent oppose them. Yet most Republicans act as if the issue is toxic. In the blue state of Michigan, to cite just one of many examples, 2006 GOP gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos opposed the anti-preferences Michigan Civil Rights Initiative. The MCRI easily passed anyway, against a strong national Democratic tide, 58-42 percent—the same margin by which DeVos lost. One can readily imagine a 2012 campaign ad showing Eric Holder speaking earlier this year at Columbia on affirmative action: “The question is not when does it end, but when does it begin. . . . When do people of color truly get the benefits to which they are entitled?”
How a candidate deals with race also speaks directly to the question of leadership, for no issue is more fundamental to the long-term well-being of the country. America’s inner cities are incubators of social dysfunction, an ongoing tragedy that will only be addressed—as Bill Cosby says, but no elected Democrat will—by focusing on the destructive attitudes and values that too often prevail in those communities. It’s worth noting that Newt Gingrich’s primary fortunes briefly soared when he raised the issue. Though Gingrich was predictably battered by Democrats and the media, his talk about enhancing the work ethic among inner-city youth surely had heads nodding, if not across the ideological spectrum, then well into the middle.
Barack Obama inspired his countrymen four years ago by presenting his candidacy as a watershed, proof that America had thrown off its historic stain of racism. Yet rather than embrace and celebrate the remarkable progress America has made on race while speaking candidly about what remains to be done, many in the president’s camp now acknowledge the advances only grudgingly, if at all, and seem intent on keeping the racial embers smoldering.
This has not been good for the country, and many people of good will know it, including some who rallied around Obama last time. For the GOP, talking straight on race is a win-win. Not only is it politically wise; it is also the right thing to do.