It’s no exaggeration to say that race and racism have been defining issues in the Age of Obama. And with the election on the horizon, the question of race and Obama’s political fortunes has returned to the fore. To wit, at the Associated Press, Jesse Washington wonders whether prejudice has played a part in the concerted conservative opposition to Obama’s presidency:
The question of whether race fuels opposition to President Barack Obama has become one of the most divisive topics of the election. It is sowing anger and frustration among conservatives who are labeled racist simply for opposing Obama’s policies and liberals who see no other explanation for such deep dislike of the president.
It is an accusation almost impossible to prove, yet it remains inseparable from the African-American experience. The idea, which seemed to die in 2008 when Obama became the first black president, is now rearing its head from college campuses to cable TV as the Democratic incumbent faces Mitt Romney, the white Republican challenger.
When people ascribe racial motives to President Obama’s opponents, the thought is that we’re calling them “racists,” in a Bull Connor kind of way. But that’s not the case at all. As Ta-Nehisi Coates argues, racism often manifests itself as a “broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others.” Despite the fact that he grew up exceptionally privileged in a world that privileged people who fit his description (white and male), no one has ever questioned Mitt Romney’s ability to perform the job of president. No one has ever accused him stupidity, and no one will ever call him an “affirmative action hire.”
By contrast, these are things faced by Obama and other minorities that find themselves in traditionally white domains. During her confirmation hearings, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was frequently described as “not smart enough” to serve alongside men like Antonin Scalia or John Roberts, despite her clear qualifications—Princeton University and Yale Law School—and long service on the federal bench.
As I’ve said on several occasions in other outlets, the vast majority of conservative anger at Barack Obama is not based in race, but it’s clear that it shapes the nature of their opposition. If Hillary Clinton were president, I would say the same of gender and sexism. Indeed, there’s no need to imagine the response to a Clinton presidency—during her campaign, items like the Hillary Clinton “nutcracker” emerged as ways to ridicule her candidacy (while also making a quick buck).
The real question isn’t whether race affects our political disputes, it’s how. This isn’t an easy question. Yes, there are clear racial implications to things like Mitt Romney’s false charge that Obama is “ending the work requirement” in welfare and simply cutting checks to recipients. But, when it comes to the role race plays in voting—did Obama lose votes because he’s black—it’s a little complicated.
In any case, if you’re trying to answer the question of race and opposition to Obama, here’s something to remember: we’re only forty-seven years removed from the official end of Jim Crow. White supremacy was the governing ideology for the vast majority of this country’s history, and—in the broad scheme of things—we’re still in the first legs of our journey toward racial equality.