This article was published in the Sunday Herald on Sept 20, 2009.
The role of an elder statesman, free from the constraints of seeking political office, is to say the unsayable. When Jimmy Carter suggested that “an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man,” he was articulating a belief, commonly held in left wing circles, that his party would rather disown.
Democrats rushed to distance themselves from his comments. Senators Dick Durbin, Kay Hagan and Jim Webb went on television to stress that opposition to Obama’s policies has nothing to do with race. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters “I don’t think the president believes that people are upset because of the colour of his skin.”
Whether there is any truth in Carter’s claim is, in political terms, beside the point. Obama and his strategists have made an artform of the delicate dance around race, taking to the floor only when absolutely necessary. When Reverend Jeremiah Wright dragged him into an undignified clinch last summer, candidate Obama spun away with a graceful rhetorical two-step, but he would much rather sit this one out.
Having declined to answer questions about the subject all week, Obama confronted it head on, granting interviews to this morning’s talk shows on five major news networks. “Are there people out there who don’t like me because of race? I’m sure there are,” he told CNN. “That’s not the overriding issue here.”
In July, Obama described the meeting between African-American Professor Henry Gates and Sergeant James Crowley, the white police officer who arrested him for breaking into his own house, as a “teachable moment” that could improve race relations in the United States. The political lesson learned was that such controversies are best avoided, no matter how great the temptation to state the obvious. Obama was forced to apologise after he told journalists that Crowley had “acted stupidly”. His approval ratings dipped a couple of percentage points.
This is why, in the days since Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” during the president’s speech about health insurance reform, the White House has taken such care to play the incident down, as less cautious Democrats ascribed racist motives to the South Carolina Congressman’s outburst. Georgia representative Hank Johnson offered the least temperate response of all with a prediction that “we’ll probably have folks putting on white hoods and white uniforms again and riding through the countryside intimidating people… that’s the logical conclusion if this kind of attitude is not rebuked.”
Predictably enough, the House vote to reprimand Wilson turned into a triumphant cabaret of Republican defiance. Majority Whip Jim Clyburn insisted that “proper contrition is expected” but encountered a gleeful lack of repentance on the red side of the aisle. “We’re here on some witch hunt, some partisan stunt that the American people are not going to respect,” said Minority Leader John Boehner. By demanding formal censure, in addition to a private apology, Democrats ceded the high ground.
Wilson’s opponent in next year’s midterm elections, Rob Miller, has raised $1.5 million in a week. Wilson himself has pulled in $1.7 million, elevated his national profile and become a hero to the hardline conservative base.
Indignation is the natural state of the Republican party in opposition. Presented with such a superb opportunity to take umbrage, Chairman Michael Steele did not disappoint, describing allegations of racism against Obama’s critics as “an outrage and a troubling sign about the lengths Democrats will go to disparage all who disagree with them.”
There is a temptation for pundits to see something unprecedented in the abuse hurled at Obama, but in truth, the right wing of the Republican party has proved over the years that it needs little in the way of legitimate grievances to demonise Democrat presidents. Bill Clinton was called a compulsive liar, a serial rapist, even a murderer, by opponents who believed he had killed White House aide Vince Foster and covered it up.
Indecorum on the House floor is nothing new, either. Clinton was routinely heckled by Republicans who believed he should not be president. George Bush was booed by Democrats when he presented his plan to privatise social security. The left is scarcely any more civil. As Colin Powell pointed out to the New York Times: “you can find pictures where Bush was called all kinds of names, with all sorts of banners being held up and burned in effigy.”
There is, however, no denying that some of Obama’s most vocal grassroots critics are racists, pure and simple. At last Saturday’s anti-government gathering in Washington, one homemade sign read “The Zoo has an African and the White House has a Lyin’ African,” alongside a picture of a lion. Another showed Martin Luther King next to Obama, declaring “he had a dream, we got a nightmare.” Any Democrat president with an ambitious social policy agenda would inspire placards along the lines of “Hitler Gave Great Speeches Too,” but Obama is the first to be caricatured as a witch doctor.
Ever since former Senator George Allen called a member of his opponent’s staff a “macaca” three years ago and lost his seat, Republican politicians have been careful not to make any statement that could be construed as racist, aware of the need to do much better with black and Hispanic voters if they are to avoid becoming an all-white regional party, consumed by its Southern strategy. In the election for RNC Chairman, Steele, an African-American, defeated Chip Saltsman, a son of Tennessee who sent out Christmas cards with a song called “Barack The Magic Negro” to his friends.
The right’s media surrogates do not operate under the same constraints. The Washington ‘tea party’ protest was promoted by Glenn Beck, the rising star of Fox News, who has argued that Obama has “a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.” His standard charge is that the Democratic administration has all the hallmarks of a totalitarian regime, but he has sometimes gone further, suggesting that the nation’s first black president seeks to redistribute white wealth to African-Americans as reparations for slavery.
Two stories that have attracted a lot of attention this week illustrate how conservative news outlets contribute to a toxic, potentially dangerous discussion of race and reinforce what Carter described as “an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president”.
The first concerns the Association of Community Organisations for Reform Now, or ACORN, a group that works with the poorest people in society, encouraging them to vote, explaining how to claim benefits, helping them get mortgages and so on. It has long been beset by right wing accusations of electoral fraud and tax evasion. Because it serves deprived communities, both the majority of the people it assists and most of its staff are black or Latino.
Two right wing activists, posing as a prostitute and her pimp, secretly filmed their interactions with Acorn employees. In Baltimore, they were told that if they brought underage girls from El Salvador to work in a brothel, only three could be listed as dependents on their welfare forms. In Brooklyn, they were advised to bury their profits in a tin to avoid paying tax. In San Bernardino, the counsellor confessed to being a former prostitute herself and joked about killing her husband.
Acorn’s management responded by sacking four of the workers involved, but not before the Senate had voted 83-7 to strip it of $1.6 million of federal housing money for low income families. Since 1993, the organisation has received approximately $53 million in government grants – roughly half Citibank oil trader Andrew Hall’s reported bonus this year.
As a young lawyer in Chicago, Obama briefly represented Acorn in court and later served on charitable boards that allocated the organisation funding. The connection is a pretty thin one, but it is being used to support the implication that he is bent on a radical restructuring of society, as the leader of a vast conspiracy of community organisers whose true intention is to provide sanctuary for illegal aliens, foster dole culture and distribute tax dollars to the undeserving poor.
In a column picked up by the Wall Street Journal, James Taranto wrote: “Obama worked for Acorn and Acorn worked for Obama. That doesn’t mean the president is implicated in any wrongdoing, but it suggests at least that the worse things get for Acorn, the more embarrassing it is for him.”
Throughout Tuesday morning and early afternoon, the main headline at leading conservative website the Drudge Report read “White Student Beaten On School Bus: Crowd Cheers.” This non-story of strictly local appeal was given prominence over a round-up of terrorist suspects in New York and the murder of a pretty Yale undergraduate. The police chief who described the attack as “racially motivated” later backed off, after reviewing the video, but by then the news item had been disseminated across the internet.
Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh spelled it out for his listeners: “It’s Obama’s America, is it not? You put your kids on a school bus, you expect safety but in Obama’s America the white kids now get beat up.” Later in the same programme, he returned to one of his favourite subjects, wondering “whether Obama’s brother is still in the hut” in Kenya. At Michelle Malkin’s website there was a mugshot of a surly black man with a stethoscope around his neck, under the headline “Home invasion robbers pose as Obamacare activists.”
Limbaugh and Beck are the Republican party’s de-facto principals, thanks to their huge nationwide audiences and the lack of a leader in Congress. Carter is right to suggest that the angry demonstrations of a far right, nativist fringe “are not just casual outcomes of a sincere debate on whether we should have a national programme on healthcare” but he has the wrong target in Joe Wilson.
Obama’s approval rating among whites has slipped from 63% in April to 43% in September. In the rush to attribute his declining poll numbers to conscious racism or subconscious prejudice, people sometimes forget that he was elected with only 43% of the white vote, according to exit polls. The national glow of self-congratulation has faded, the fantasy that having a black president would somehow usher in a new era of racial harmony has been stripped bare, but his support remains comparatively strong.
It has been a tough summer for the administration. Obama’s popularity has waned because of effective Republican opposition, an unemployment rate that continues to rise, deep concerns over the national debt and a muddled message on healthcare. If he can pass meaningful reform and the economy turns around, the spat between Carter and Wilson will be remembered as an ugly sideshow, if it is remembered at all.