Illustration for article titled What Does it Mean For America to be Tolerant Again?

Three of my favorite editors in Washington—Mark Schmitt, Frank Foer and Michael Tomasky—spoke at the NDN think tank this afternoon, on “The Early Days of Obama” (a clever dodge of the first 100 days conceit, which Schmitt hates).


The trio was moderated by Simon Rosenberg, President of NDN, and all four men made some very interesting observations about race in the age of Obama. Rosenberg thinks that where race was once obviously “an exploitative, pernicious, destructive” force in American politics, we now practice “tolerance”—which he defined as “something that celebrates our differences” and that “may be the single most powerful of our founding values.”

I’ve always thought “tolerance” was a clunky word that never quite reaches its semantic potential. We “tolerate” crying babies at the airport—are we “tolerating” racial difference, or have we reached a place of meaningful interaction? Rosenberg contrasted this fundamentally American idea of tolerance with “the age of fear” that we’d lived through in the Bush years—and in this context, I think he’s right. We are somewhere different.


This idea of racial harmony in Obama’s America has been discussed in a set of pieces this week in the NEW YORK TIMES and in NEWSWEEK, exploring "Michelle Obama’s diverse approach to diversity,” and the slow release of long-held racial grievances among older blacks. One man quoted in the TIMES put it this way:

“Whenever they said something, I was always looking out for their ulterior motives,” said Mr. Harris, 62, a retired phone company worker. “Now I find that I take white people’s statements more on face value.”

The whole discussion took on a new significance as it relates to the current state of American politics. Responding both to the death of moderate, relatively pro-black Republican Jack Kemp and the shocking new numbers saying that only 21 percent of Americans now identify as Republicans, Schmitt said he recently realized that for all of Kemp’s inadequacies as a legislator and politician, his outreach to black Americans “was the path not taken for the right,” adding that history would question why the GOP didn’t reach out to those African Americans and Hispanics who are inherently conservative.

It was easy to see the possibility of building a multiracial Republican coalition…in the South, you needed to get 18 percent rather than 6 percent [of black votes] and you’re there…. Was it just that they were too dumb to see it? The choice not to take the path that Jack Kemp offered…was probably the most consequential political decision of the past 40 years.


Again, I’m inclined to agree. Of course, the conservatism that decries government spending and lives for tax cuts started out as an ugly strain of Republican ideology that loathed the welfare state and, by consequence, poor people of color. But if Obama's election showed anything, it's that the GOP's bet on perpetual polarization and racial backlash has failed. And the Republican party has found nothing to take its place.

Tomasky and Rosenberg both named a “silent majority” that is ready to be colorblind—or at least to try. This is largely the natural result of seeing the White House—the “people’s house,” as we’re often reminded—filled with a black family and dynamic black political leadership. But Tomasky said we won't see the results of this seismic cultural change until the president is up for reelection, asking:

Assuming he’s a reasobaably successful president … Heading into his reelection, how much better will he do among that part of America that was disinclined to vote for an African American president?


Specifically, he meant those “hardworking white Americans” of which Hillary Clinton famously spoke, living in Arkansas, Kentucky and West Virginia, who would not, could not back a black man for higher office. Have they changed with the rest of the country? (Harold Ford wants to know.)

Interestingly, Rosenberg also noted that the battlefield in which we might see these new racial dynamics play out will not be on the terrain of traditionally African American interests, but in the realm of immigration from Latin America. As we turn to more ambitious political reform, what will the lessons learned from Obama’s election mean for that touchy debate?



UPDATE: The image is from the great MAPSCROLL blog, and depicts the counties in America that voted *more Republican* than in 2004 than in 2008. See other great maps from Charles M. Blow's post-election analysis of Appalachia and much more.


Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

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