The Race Card

I’ve just finished reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ remarkable, sweeping, eloquent article in the Atlantic about Barack Obama and American race relations. I need to read it again, and maybe a third time, to fully absorb it. But suffice it to say that Coates has firmly identified the central dilemma of Barack Obama’s political career from the perspective of virtually all Americans of every background: he cannot escape being the First Black President, and for that reason, is imprisoned by racial perspectives which, ironically, inhibit him from doing much of anything to address the continuing racial tensions that afflict us.

That Obama is being held to a higher standard of “color-blindness” than any past president becomes obvious through Coates’ eyes as he examines the constant pressures he has endured to avoid any word or deed that would undermine his legitimacy as president of “all the people.” It certainly hasn’t taken much for Obama to occasionally fail that test in the eyes of his detractors, as Coates amply illustrates in his account of how Obama’s purely human reaction to Trayvon Martin’s death inadvertently politicized the incident and was used to excuse the expression of raw and primitive racial stereotypes of the kind his election had supposedly made obsolete.

I’ll probably have more to say about Coates’ essay down the road, but for the moment, I’d like to draw attention to Jamelle Bouie’s comment on it at TAP, expressing his incredulity that it’s a bit risky to suggest that perhaps some critics of Obama are motivated by or are trying to benefit from racial hostility to Obama and the people he inherently represents:

I’m honestly amazed that—for many people—it’s beyond the pale to accuse a political party of exploiting racism for political gain. We’re only 47 years removed from the official end of Jim Crow and the routine assassination of black political leaders. This year’s college graduates are the children of men and women who remember—or experienced—the race riots of the late 1960s and 70s. The baby boomers—including the large majority of our lawmakers—were children when Emmett Till was murdered, teenagers when George Wallace promised to defend segregation in perpetuity, and adults when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed for his belief in the humanity of black people….

Interracial marriage was illegal in large swaths of the country when Barack Obama Sr. married Ann Dunham.

Mitt Romney was 31 when the Church of Latter Day Saints allowed African American priests, and repudiated early leader Brigham Young’s pronouncement that “The Lord had cursed Cain’s seed with blackness and prohibited them the Priesthood.”

Nancy Pelosi grew up in segregated Baltimore.

Mitch McConnell was sixteen when his high school admitted its first black students.

Of course there are politicians and political parties that capitalize on racism. Why wouldn’t they? The end of our state-sanctioned racial caste system is a recent event in our history; more recent than Medicare or Medicaid, more recent than the advent of computers, more recent than the interstate highway system, and more recent than Social Security. Taken in the broad terms of a nation’s life, we’re only a few weeks removed from the widespread acceptance of white supremacy.

No question about that. As a Baby Boomer who grew up in Jim Crow Georgia, I remember with equal shame the official segregation that accompanied my childhood; the vicious, violent attitude towards the civil rights movement that I heard constantly from extended family (never once, thank you Jesus, from my parents) and friends during adolescence; and the constant stream of racial “jokes” I still hear back home about Obama when I stray outside my immediate family.

The kindling is still there for racial conflict–and obviously, not just in the Deep South, where white folks have had to co-exist with African-Americans much more intimately than in many parts of the country–and as Coates shows, Obama has gone far out of his way to avoid providing a spark for its ignition.

And that is why, like Bouie, I find it so outrageous that the Romney/Ryan campaign–which should, as a matter of patriotism and civic solidarity, go far out of its way to avoid fanning the racial flames–has chosen instead to make up a racial grievance against the incumbent, one so ancient that George Wallace is probably cackling in his grave. And the wealthy, cosmopolitan cynics that are running the GOP campaign are counting on the conservative chattering classes to shout down any objection to this tactic with cries of “Obama is playing the race card!” You know, like he would, being one of those people himself.

As a white southerner of a certain age, I find this tactic, to which the Romney campaign has devoted vast resources, both shocking and depressingly familiar. I hope Bill Clinton–from a very similar background to mine–feels exactly the same way, and gives some extra attention to rebutting this particularly shameful line of attack on the First Black President that adds insult to injury by using Clinton’s own image as fuel for the intended fire.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.