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The Color of His Presidency

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As a corollary, conservatives believe that the true heir to the civil-rights movement and its ideals is the modern Republican Party (the one containing all the former segregationists). A whole subgenre of conservative “history” is devoted to rebutting the standard historical narrative that the civil-rights movement drove conservative whites out of the Democratic Party. The ritual of right-wing African-Americans’ appearing before tea-party activists to absolve them of racism has drawn liberal snickers, but the psychological distress on display here runs much deeper. Glenn Beck’s “I Have a Dream” rally, the Republican habit of likening Obama and his policies either to slavery or to segregation (at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference alone, both Ralph Reed and Bobby Jindal compared the Obama administration to George Wallace)—these are expressions not of a political tactic but a genuine obsession.

This fervent scrubbing away of the historical stain of racism represents, on one level, a genuine and heartening development, a necessary historical step in the full banishment of white supremacy from public life. On another level, it is itself a kind of racial resentment, a new stage in the long belief by conservative whites that the liberal push for racial equality has been at their expense. The spread of racial resentment on the right in the Obama years is an aggregate sociological reality. It is also a liberal excuse to smear individual conservatives. Understanding the mutual racial-­ideological loathing of the Obama era requires understanding how all the foregoing can be true at once.

In February 2007, with the Obama cultural phenomenon already well under way, Joe Biden—being a rival candidate at the time, but also being Joe Biden—attempted a compliment. “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-­American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” he said. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”

It was a cringe-worthy moment, but Obama brushed it off graciously. “He called me,” said Obama. “I told him [the call] wasn’t necessary. We have got more important things to worry about.”

This has been Obama’s M.O.: focus on “the more important things.” He’s had to deal explicitly with race in a few excruciating instances, like the 2009 “beer summit” with the black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, a friend of Obama’s, and James Crowley, the police sergeant responsible for Gates’s controversial arrest. (Obama’s response to the incident was telling: He positioned himself not as an ally of Gates but as a mediator between the two, as equally capable of relating to the white man’s perspective as the black man’s.) After the Zimmerman shooting, he observed that if he had had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin. In almost every instance when his blackness has come to the center of public events, however, he has refused to impute racism to his critics.

This has not made an impression upon the critics. In fact, many conservatives believe he accuses them of racism all the time, even when he is doing the opposite. When asked recently if racism explained his sagging approval ratings, Obama replied, “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. Now, the flip side of it is 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.” Conservatives exploded in indignation, quoting the first sentence without mentioning the second. Here was yet another case of Obama playing the race card, his most cruel and most unanswerable weapon.

I recently asked Jonah Goldberg, a longtime columnist for National Review, why conservatives believed that Obama himself (as opposed to his less reticent allies) implied that they were racially motivated. He told me something that made a certain amount of sense. A few days before Obama’s inaugural address, at a time when his every utterance commanded massive news coverage, the president-elect gave a speech in Philadelphia calling for “a new declaration of independence, not just in our nation, but in our own lives—from ideology and small thinking, prejudice and bigotry—an appeal not to our easy instincts but to our better angels.”

What struck Goldberg was Obama’s juxtaposition of “ideology and small thinking”—terms he has always associated with his Republican opponents—with “prejudice and bigotry.” He was not explicitly calling them the same thing, but he was treating them as tantamount. “That feeds into the MSNBC style of argument about Obama’s opponents,” Goldberg told me, “that there must be a more interesting explanation for their motives.”

It’s unlikely that Obama is deliberately plotting to associate his opponents with white supremacy in a kind of reverse-Atwater maneuver. But Obama almost surely believes his race helped trigger the maniacal ferocity of his opponents. (If not, he would be one of the few Obama voters who don’t.) And it’s not hard to imagine that Obama’s constant, public frustration with the irrationality pervading the Republican Party subconsciously expresses his suspicions.

Obama is attempting to navigate the fraught, everywhere-and-yet-nowhere racial obsession that surrounds him. It’s a weird moment, but also a temporary one. The passing from the scene of the nation’s first black president in three years, and the near-certain election of its 44th nonblack one, will likely ease the mutual suspicion. In the long run, generational changes grind inexorably away. The rising cohort of Americans holds far more liberal views than their parents and grandparents on race, and everything else (though of course what you think about “race” and what you think about “everything else” are now interchangeable). We are living through the angry pangs of a new nation not yet fully born.


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