It began before he was even elected.
In the spring of 2008, when it became clear that the Illinois senator would likely be the Democratic nominee for president, there were chain emails declaring that Barack Obama was born not in Hawaii but in Kenya and was therefore ineligible.
The “Birther” effort, claiming the president’s alleged illegitimacy, would persist throughout his presidency. But the fallout didn’t stop there. Obama’s election was followed by a sudden uncanny interest in voter-ID laws by GOP governors. And then, for the first time in decades, voting-rights cases came to the fore, such as Evenwel v. Abbott and Shelby County v. Holder—the case that would gut Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
The Obama presidency seemed to confirm two things simultaneously: first, that his presence in the White House was a sign of how far the country has come on race; and second, that his presidency provided unintended lessons in how far America has to go.
The ascension of Donald Trump, with his hate-filled rhetoric and Birther past, may reveal an ugly side to politics that the Republicans have long tried to keep hidden, but it was always there, and now it has a singular candidate as its face. But the twisted logic by some that “Obama created Trump” is a reflection of the same “Obama derangement syndrome” thinking seen in the anger over white Marines holding umbrellas in the rain for the first black president. It doesn’t hold up.
Obama didn’t create Trump. Hatred of Obama did.
In America, the boomerang of black advancement routinely includes a white backlash. Obama’s presidency is no exception. Trump’s front-runner status is irrevocably part of the historic obstruction and backlash against President Obama, whose election was an immeasurable advancement for African-American aspirations. His very appearance in the corridors of power is enormous.
But this same appearance has inflamed the minds and rhetoric of those who want to “take their country back.” And take back from whom? They have some very particular people in mind. Though racial backlash is rarely discussed in mainstream media, a look at U.S. history reveals that there have always been specific repercussions to black progress.
After President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the backlash included the birth of the Ku Klux Klan in Tennessee in 1865. After Reconstruction, what happened? Several Southern states passed the Black Codes in 1865 and 1866 to restrict the liberty of African Americans.
In 1919, black veterans returning home from World War I noted the irony of being in uniform and fighting for a country where they received no justice. They also returned home to increased competition between blacks and whites for jobs. The response to those fears over black soldiers demanding rights and mere job competition? The Red Summer race riots in Illinois, Arkansas and Washington, D.C., with whites also destroying the wealthiest African-American community in America—Black Wall Street—two years later in Tulsa, Okla.
In May 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racially separate public schools were not equal. What followed two months later, in July, was the formation of the White Citizens’ Councils to stop integration. In 1957 the Arkansas National Guard was used to block African-American students from entering Little Rock Central High School. In 1958, in Virginia, Sen. Harry Byrd organized the massive resistance movement, and the state closed schools rather than integrate them.
In 1963 Medgar Evers was shot to death after filing a lawsuit to desegregate schools in Jackson, Miss. He was murdered by a member of a Citizens’ Council. This was just part of the response to the notion that blacks should be permitted to occupy the same educational facilities as whites.