President Obama’s Impact on Racism

A lot of pundits have suggested that the presidency of Barack Obama has polarized the racial divide in this country. And there’s some truth to that. At no point in my adult life has race been more front and center as an issue than its been over the last 6 years. And so the question becomes whether this President has moved us forward or backwards when it comes to the racial divide in this country.

From the 1970’s through the early 2000’s, most white people could simply ignore the question of racism. There were times it came out of the woodwork and surprised us – like the reaction to the verdict in the O.J. Simpson trail. But if we were successfully able to segregate ourselves from the every day lives of black/brown people, we could reach the conclusion that the Civil Rights Movement had tackled that problem and it was time to move on. When it came to politics, that included both white conservatives and liberals.

Then we elected our first black president. Leonard Pitts suggests that has led us to a moment that resembles something in our recent past.

Six years ago, there was wistful talk of a “post-racial America.” But today, we find ourselves in the most-racial America since the O.J. Simpson debacle. It’s not just income inequality, voter suppression and the killing of unarmed black boys. It’s also the ongoing inability of too many people to see African Americans as part of the larger, American “us.”

Most of them no longer say it with racial slurs, but they say it just the same. They say it with birther lies and innuendo of terrorist ties. They say it by saying “subhuman mongrel.” They say it by questioning Obama’s faith. They say it as Rudy Giuliani said it last week. They say it because they have neither the guts to say nor the self-awareness to understand what’s really bothering them:

How did this bleeping N-word become president of the United States?…

The day the towers fell, Giuliani seemed a heroic man. But he has since made himself a foolish and contemptible one, an avatar of white primacy struggling to contend with its own looming obsolescence.

And the question once famously put to Joe McCarthy seems to apply: “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”

Those same events led Ezra Klein to write about Obama Derangement Syndrome.

But then, that’s why Obama Derangement Syndrome is different than Bush Derangement Syndrome: it’s not really about Obama’s presidency. It’s about Obama himself. It’s about his blackness, his father’s foreignness, his strange name, his radical pastor. Obama’s presidency is in many ways ordinary, but the feelings it evokes are not. There is something about seeing Obama in the White House that deeply unsettles his critics. Obama Derangement Syndrome rationalizes those feelings.

I don’t know that much about Klein’s personal life other than that he’s young, smart, liberal and wonky. So I don’t want to make this all about him. But for the cohort he represents, it’s obviously pretty difficult to continue to ignore the reality of racism in this country as we watch the reaction to this President.

And so I am reminded of what Derrick Jensen wrote in The Culture of Make Believe.

Several times I have commented that hatred felt long and deeply enough no longer feels like hatred, but more like tradition, economics, religion, what have you. It is when those traditions are challenged, when the entitlement is threatened, when the masks of religion, economics, and so on are pulled away that hate transforms from its more seemingly sophisticated, “normal,” chronic state—where those exploited are looked down upon, or despised—to a more acute and obvious manifestation. Hate becomes more perceptible when it is no longer normalized.

Another way to say all of this is that if the rhetoric of superiority works to maintain the entitlement, hatred and direct physical force remains underground. But when that rhetoric begins to fail, force and hatred waits in the wings, ready to explode.

The presidency of Barack Obama has threatened the normalization of racism that allowed too many white people in this country to ignore it for the last 40 years. It’s now out in the open and time for us to reckon with it.

And so I’ll repeat the question Pitts asked: “Have you no sense of decency, sir/madame?

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.