In the national shouting match over racism, discrimination, and American policing that we’ve conducted since the tragedies in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Falcon Heights, Minnesota, and Dallas, one refrain stands out from all the others in its oily tendentiousness. Barack Obama has made the racial divide worse.
There’s a good chance you’ve heard this before. It sprouted up in the fever swamps of the right wing after the president gave his sympathy to the family of Trayvon Martin in the wake of the teenager’s death in 2012. A year later, when a jury acquitted the shooter, George Zimmerman, those voices rose again to denounce Obama as a “race-baiter.”
When Obama spoke on discord in Ferguson, Missouri, and urged understanding, conservatives accused him of stoking racial fires. When he spoke on the disorder in Baltimore, and urged calm, conservatives said he “inflamed“ tensions. After anti-racist protests roiled college campuses last fall, leading Republicans blamed him for worsening “race relations.” And now, after a week of anger and anxiety, a chorus of conservative and right-wing voices agree: Obama caused this conflict.
“In Dallas, Tuesday, President Obama will be trying to calm racial tensions that his own behavior has done much to aggravate,” said Fox News’ Brit Hume on Monday. “From his denunciation of the Cambridge, Massachusetts, police as acting, quote, stupidly in the arrest of law professor Henry Louis Gates, to his assertion that the motives of the Dallas cop killer are unclear, they aren’t.”
“Mr. President, you’ve done nothing but tell us we deserve it. You’ve done nothing but look back in the rearview mirror,” conservative personality Jeanine Pirro said of the shootings in Dallas.
“More than seven years into the administration of the nation’s first black president, Americans are more deeply divided on race then they have been in decades,” wrote Steven Malanga for City Journal. “Their own president has fostered the divide.” His label-mate, editor-at-large Myron Magnet, was even fiercer in his condemnation: “If you want to ignite race riots, a sure-fire way to do it is to stir up black hatred and suspicion of cops, which will in turn make cops warier of blacks and more trigger-happy, and so on, until an explosion occurs. So thanks, President Obama. You have set back American race relations by 50 years.”
On offer in each argument is the notion that—through his commentary, through his politics, through his mere presence—Obama interrupted a Whiggish progression toward racial harmony. Remove him from the equation, they say, and we don’t have the race turmoil of the past seven years.
That notion is nonsense, an updated spin on the old idea of an outside agitator. It depends on a deliberate miscasting of Obama’s rhetoric which, as we saw at Tuesday’s memorial in Dallas, is defined by its call for reconciliation and unity. And it rests on outright ignorance of public opinion.
In the years before Obama (and after Hurricane Katrina), black Americans were increasingly discontented with “race relations” in the United States. The phrase itself explains part of the story. “Race relations” is used in most polling and public discussion of the racial divide but it’s fundamentally evasive and inaccurate, which is why I use scare quotes here. The problem of race isn’t that blacks and whites (or other groups) don’t get along. The problem of race is that blacks and other nonwhites face unfair treatment and material disadvantage. The problem of race is that the descendants of enslaved people, and those in close social and economic proximity to them, have been marked for aggression, predation, and deprivation by the dominant socioeconomic group, and suffer as a result. When black Americans say they are pessimistic about “race relations,” what they mean is they are unhappy with that treatment. An America that euphemizes this grievance as a matter of “race relations,” and in the process consecrates race as a natural category, is an America that still isn’t confronting its reality.
On the eve of Obama’s election, just a scant minority of blacks agreed those relations were “generally good.” Far from causing division, Obama’s rise and success brought a new period of racial optimism as black Americans found faith and hope in the fact of his elevation. But that optimism shook against a fierce—and sometimes racist—backlash to the president, finally tumbling as blacks watched video after video of police violence, with little accountability for the killers and little sympathy for the victims.
If “race relations” are indeed at a low, if Americans are more divided over racism and a path forward, it’s not because Obama gave measured sympathy to the family of a Florida teenager, or voiced a common frustration among black Americans. By that standard, we should blame Republican South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott for “dividing Americans” after he testified to the reality of racial profiling. No, black Americans—and Americans writ large—are reacting to facts on the ground, killings, and other incidents that put racial inequality into stark relief.
To blame Obama for discord—rather than the actual abuses and inequalities that drive the reaction—is a classic example of anti-anti-racism, wherein efforts to address and combat racial bias are reckoned a larger problem than the bias itself. And in the same way, Obama’s willingness to speak to and for black Americans as a black American marks him as the real racist, maligned for acknowledging the reality of racism. It’s a bizarro view of American life where racial discord is caused by speaking out about discrimination, not by discrimination itself.
It’s rich that this argument has currency at the same time that Donald Trump is preparing for his coronation as the presidential nominee of the Republican Party. After years of accusing Obama of fostering racial hatred, of slamming basic empathy as some attack on white Americans, these conservatives—men like Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani—are primed to nominate a man whose political persona is built on actual prejudice and bigotry. A man who casually spreads racist and anti-Semitic propaganda. A man who incites fear and racial hatred for political gain.
Soon enough, these conservatives will take a man who stands as the true avatar of their anti-Obama projections and proclaim him their standard-bearer for president of the United States.