It seems that some white Americans, and the modern-day Republican Party in particular, have found themselves stuck between Barack and a hard place.
The nation’s tortured history of racial discrimination and violence against African Americans has left the promise of a color-blind society as elusive as Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream.
President Obama has skillfully (and wisely) remained above the fray of racial innuendo and hyperbole in dealing with the issue of race. But it remains unavoidable largely because his opponents have used the issue to skew the political discourse and manipulate the social consciousness of the American electorate—which, despite becoming increasingly brown, remains overwhelmingly white.
To that end, race matters. And Obama recently acknowledged the fact with an unapologetic and deft sense of reality.
In a recent interview with David Remnick for the New Yorker magazine, the president ascribed some (not all) of the incessant political opposition and personal attacks he has faced to race.
“There’s no doubt that there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black President,” Obama said. “There is a historic connection between some of the arguments that we have politically and the history of race in our country, and sometimes it’s hard to disentangle those issues.”
As with respect to all things truthful, there was an immediate far-right, conservative backlash.
Failed vice presidential candidate and former Gov. Sarah Palin resorted to Facebook, writing, “Mr. President, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. and all who commit to ending any racial divide, no more playing the race card.”
Conservative radio jockey Rush Limbaugh declared, “This is not a racist country.”
Naturally, Limbaugh said so after referring to the president as “Barack ‘Choom Gang’ Obama” and repeatedly reminding his listeners that although the president doesn’t have a son, “if he did, his son would have looked like Trayvon Martin.”
One outraged Fox News pundit accused the president of race-baiting. “He always goes right to the race piece out of the gate,” said Andrea Tantaros of The Five. “Always goes there.”
And Republican strategist Alice Stewart told CNN’s Don Lemon that Obama “refuses to acknowledge” the racial progress this country has made.
The cognitive dissonance is mind-numbing.
President Obama’s broader point seemed lost on the race-obsessed crowd.
"Now, the flip side of it is,” Obama said, “there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I’m a black President.”
Though he acknowledged that his blackness might affect how some Americans perceive his presidency, this second-term president clearly recognizes that racism is hardly an insurmountable barrier to his achievements and success. Obama even evoked Abraham Lincoln when providing a broader context to his time in the White House.
“Despite being the greatest president, in my mind, in our history,” Obama said of Lincoln, “it took another 150 years before African Americans had anything approaching formal equality, much less real equality.” He added, “That doesn’t diminish Lincoln’s achievements, but it acknowledges that at the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”
Given such a balanced and reasonable perspective presented on the matter, it is curious how Republicans—who vehemently deride the president both politically and personally—can blindly ignore the fact that race and racism influences some, if not all, of their biases. And only willful ignorance could blind one to the fact that race has served as a deliberate and divisive tool by mainstream and far-right Republicans alike.
Perhaps they need a reminder.
It was former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich who tried to invoke the flailing “Southern strategy” by calling Obama “the most successful food stamp president” in the nation’s history.
Failed GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney openly embraced Donald Trump, the grand master of the Birther movement, and boldly stood before a Michigan crowd at an official 2012 election rally proclaiming, “No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate.”
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, in an attempted attack on the president’s stimulus spending, infamously claimed that he didn’t want to make “black people’s lives better by giving them other people’s money.”
And Rep. Joe Wilson, a Republican from the former Confederate state of South Carolina, boldly yelled, “You lie” at President Obama during a joint session of Congress. The incident became iconic because it reflected a display of disrespect toward a commander in chief that had never been experienced by any of Obama’s 43 nonblack predecessors.
The list could go on, but the point is clear: Republicans have been talking about race for a very long time—and not so subtly.
In the past when the president has spoken about race, as he did during his first campaign in 2008 or during the sensitive marches in 2012 demanding justice for Trayvon Martin, it has always been with a purpose (and hope) to bring about a common understanding, healing and sense of togetherness across racial lines and ethnic communities.
Though it may come as a surprise to many that President Obama can speak as eloquently about race as he can about international affairs or constitutional law, it shouldn’t. And he need not feel bridled for fear of offense.
As the leader of a multiracial nation that still bears the scars of institutionalized racial discrimination and its racially disparate outcomes, this first black president can’t help but acknowledge the limitations of imperfect men and women, in an imperfect world, aspiring toward a more perfect union.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.