Racists have officially lost their minds. In recent weeks, the venom spewed at President Barack Obama would leave one to believe that we are in the midst of a racist renaissance. "A dick," "jackass," "tar baby, "your boy" — you name it and the president has been called it. For some reason, some people are so enraged by how this country is purportedly being run that they cannot separate a real critique of the president's decisions from mean-spirited name-calling related to his race.
Yes, the country that likes to pretend that it is far removed from its racist past has engaged in the verbal equivalent of a throwback jersey. Some people have reached far back into that Reconstruction-era closet, pulled out that dingy jersey adorned with racial slurs, shaken it out and put it on proudly. Elected officials have reduced themselves to behaving like petulant children, storming in and out of meetings and running to the media to lob personal attacks at the president, then offering lame apologies shortly afterward.
Is this the postracial era that so many people theorized about following the election of the nation's first black president? Try post-Reconstruction, because the harmful slurs and images being tossed around the Internet and in public spaces hark back more to a racist past than to a racially ambiguous future.
It's not surprising that President Obama is being received in such a way.
Trouble From the Start
We got a peek at what was to come just seven months into President Obama's tenure. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouted, "You lie!" during the president's speech about health care reform. Clearly Wilson had a flashback to legalized segregation, when folks publicly bullied, threatened and heckled blacks to remind them of who was "in charge."
Wilson subsequently issued an apology, saying his actions were "regrettable" and he'd let his emotions take over. He was just the first of a series of elected officials acting like fools and then offering weak apologies as a remedy for said actions.
To be clear, "You lie!" is not a racist exclamation. Yet and still, it is insulting and in recent memory has not been used against any other president, even when he may have been lying about one thing or another. President George W. Bush and the weapons of mass destruction, for example, or President Bill Clinton and the Lewinsky scandal could have triggered such a response.
One could argue that both presidents lied about these "issues," but no one saw fit to scream out "You lie" when either president was discussing the matter. However, before President Obama could get his words out, Wilson was hurling the insult in a televised session of Congress, which in my mind makes it a partisan act at best — and a racist act at worst.
Pundits and politicians like Wilson have been letting their emotions and their acidic tongues take over ever since. We've had other comments and shenanigans, like Tea Party member Marilyn Davenport of the Orange County Republican Central Committee sending out "chimp" emails of the first family, insisting that it was political satire and yet apologizing, while refusing to step down. That email was clearly racist because of the long history of comparing blacks to apes in art, literature, film and history, based on a so-called hierarchy of humans.
The most recent example of racial commentary comes from Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), who referred to President Obama as a "tar baby." He not only apologized but also said that he was certain the president would accept his apology because he is a "man of character."
Lamborn's presumption that the president would accept his apology has nothing to do with Obama being a man of character. He's a black man, so he will ostensibly submit to the will of this white man, who has been described as the most conservative member of Congress. Inherent in Lamborn's "apology" is the audacity to believe that he can determine the thoughts and actions of President Obama without giving him the respect of a conversation, which is racist and insulting.
Therein lies the rub: These examples of what appears to be a fundamental lack of respect for President Obama have more than offensive words behind them. Racism is the belief that races have distinctive cultural characteristics determined by hereditary factors and that this endows some races with an intrinsic superiority over others. These politicians and pundits appear to be engaging in racist acts based on this flawed ideology at the same time that all kinds of "movements" have sprung up in reaction to Obama's election.
No other president has had his qualifications for the office challenged so vigorously. A "Birther movement" developed around fabrications about the citizenship of Obama (made up mostly by Orly Taitz, a Russian-born woman and recent citizen).
A number of folks jumped on the bandwagon, calling for the president to "show his papers." Many Republicans, who just a few years ago had toyed with the idea of altering the Constitution so that the fan favorite and Austrian-born Arnold Schwarzenegger could run for president, joined a movement that appeared to be the closest thing to a high-tech lynching seen in this century.
Could it be partisanship? Yes. Could it be a profound lack of patriotism? Yes. But again, it smacks of something that has nothing to do with partisanship or patriotism but with the basest of reasons for disliking and disrespecting someone: because he or she does not look like you.
Is this why some people feel comfortable saying that President Obama hasn't done anything since he's been in office? Had Osama bin Laden been captured and killed while President George W. Bush was in office, there would have been a movement to make him President Emeritus of the United States. Instead, President Obama, the man whose administration actually delivered, is reduced to a brother hooping it up at the White House and doing nothing.
This leads me right back to the racism that has been bubbling underground and resurfaced with the debt-ceiling debacle. Folks from all walks of life took that crisis as a get-out-of-jail-free card to spew venom on President Obama instead of dumping on those who would rather sink this country — and may have done just that with the recent credit downgrade. How sinister can you be to purposely create a hole and then try to push the entire country into it? All of this because a black man is president?
If it isn't because President Obama is black, then what is it? There is plenty to criticize about the current administration, but the inability to do so with respect for the man or the office is the giveaway.
The racial climate is suffocating and getting worse. Every other week, another politician or pundit is apologizing for making what he or she keeps calling inappropriate comments about President Obama. But what these people call inappropriate, insulting or partisan, I call racist — a term that describes abusive or aggressive behavior toward a member of another race based on the belief that some races have an intrinsic superiority over others. If this is not what we're witnessing, then I don't know what it is.
Yes, it's a great time to be a racist, and a horrible time to be the nation's first black president.
Nsenga Burton is The Root's editor-at-large.