the national interest

Conservatives Have Never Understood What Obama Thinks About Racism

Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally In Billings, Montana
The intellectual roots of white backlash politics. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Donald Trump has attained his wild popularity among Republicans by tapping into their pervasive feeling of racial victimization. The right-wing view of Obama as a crafty manipulator of racial tension comes through in Ben Shapiro’s column in National Review. While rejecting Donald Trump’s argument that only white men are fit to judge his fraud trial, Shapiro insists that Trump is merely recapitulating Obama’s sin of “tribalism.” Shapiro left his former employer, the right-wing, race-baiting site Breitbart, because of his opposition to Trump. And while his argument is putatively made in opposition to Trump’s racism, Shapiro’s argument is a telling specimen of the very white racial paranoia that enabled Trump to conquer the Republican Party.

“[Obama] has used tribalism to grow his own power,” writes Shapiro. “By cobbling together a coalition of racial and ethnic interest groups, Obama knew he could maximize the power of the government to act on their behalf.” It is true, of course, that Democrats do appeal to different members of their coalition on the basis of their interests. If you believe that racial discrimination against white people is as serious a problem in American life as discrimination against racial minorities, as Republicans overwhelmingly do, then you’re inclined to view any specific appeal to minorities as the odious dangling of special favors.

That is the standard lens through which conservatives view Democratic policy on any issue with a disparate impact. This Wall Street Journal editorial from the previous election is typical; it accuses Democrats of “asking for black votes as a matter of racial solidarity,” citing ads denouncing Republican vote suppression and stand-your-ground laws. In reality, stand-your-ground laws have been shown to disproportionately harm African-Americans, and piles of studies find that voting restrictions disproportionately impact racial minorities, and that Republican legislatures tend to propose them in reaction to higher minority turnout. (Every so often a Republican legislator or operative is dumb enough to admit this motive in public.)

The complaint that Democrats appeal to voters fundamentally on the basis of their identity is a strange one. After all, unlike the Republican coalition, which is almost entirely white, Obama’s coalition is multiethnic. Whites supplied more than half (55 percent) of Obama’s votes in 2012, with nonwhites (African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans) providing the rest. The Republican Party relies almost entirely on whites, who provide about 90 percent of its votes. It is bizarre to describe the coalition balancing members of different ethnic backgrounds as appealing to ethnicity and the party consisting of a single ethnic group as not.

But the most bizarre element of Shapiro’s charge is his insistence that Obama “constantly suggests that America has an inborn, unfixable problem with racism.” If Obama truly does this “constantly,” Shapiro would be able to offer up many examples of him doing it, but he offers zero. It’s a claim National Review readers would deem so obviously correct it requires no substantiation.

But it’s a complete fantasy. Obama’s account of racism in the United States is just the opposite. Perhaps Shapiro has heard the president talk about the moral arc of the universe bending toward justice. The notion that the United States is capable of racial progress is literally the single most prevalent theme of Obama’s rhetoric. It runs through his victory speech in 2008 (“that is the true genius of America — that America can change. Our union can be perfected.”) to his speech commemorating the march at Selma (“We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, that racial division is inherent to America.”). In his recent speeches this spring, Obama has focused almost singularly and obsessively on rebutting left-wing pessimists who doubt America’s ability to progress on racial justice.

An “inborn, unfixable problem with racism” is the polar opposite of Obama’s actual argument, and a view he has decried over and over and over. Shapiro’s misread of the president’s view is as egregious as accusing Bernie Sanders of ignoring income inequality. The magnitude of Shapiro’s error is telling. That the first black president could proclaim over and over that his country can (and has, and will continue to) progress toward racial harmony, and yet be portrayed in the elite conservative media as a hectoring prophet of racial doom, tells you everything you need to know about why Trumpism has prevailed.

Conservatives Never Understood Obama on Racism