Race is the original sin of American history. To deny its influence on our society is as futile as it is illogical. Nevertheless, the attempt to cast President Obama’s re-election campaign as the focus of a racial backlash seems to be more about obfuscating the issues that are animating the vast majority of voters than providing any insight into public opinion.
Yet that is very much the conceit of a front-page feature in today’s New York Times titled, “Four Years Later, Race is Still Issue for Some Voters.” The Times’ sent a reporter to Steubenville, Ohio and beat the bushes to find some racists and found a few, though they seemed to come in some unlikely varieties. The piece failed to explain why if the president won this crucial swing state in 2008 he should be worried about the minority of voters who hold his skin color and ethnicity against him now. As should be apparent even to the Times editor who ordered up this tired attempt to revive the race canard against the Republicans, if the president’s hold on the state seems shaky — as polls say it is — it is clearly not because the portion of the electorate that is irredeemably prejudiced still won’t vote for him but because others who did (and therefore demonstrated their lack of racial bias) now judge his performance unsatisfactory.
It is undeniable that there are those in our country who still judge people principally by their race. That is unfortunate, and we can hope that the diminishing numbers of those who fall into that category will continue to decrease. President Obama is right when he says he does not think his election forever ended the discussion of race in America. But it did mean that the majority of Americans were no longer so constricted by prejudice so as to render it impossible for an African-American to be elected president. Indeed, as some of those quoted by the Times rightly point out, a desire to demonstrate a lack of prejudice as well as a wish to right some historic wrongs, played a not insignificant role in the Obama triumph in 2008.
The president’s problem this year is, as the Times puts it, “now that history has been made it is less of a pull.” Ohioans, like the rest of the country, are judging him on his performance, and the results are less than gratifying for the president. That means his cheerleaders in the media need to trot out the ghost of American racial politics in order to help stigmatize his opponents.
Despite the obvious evidence that race was not a significant factor in attitudes toward the president, from the outset of the Obama administration there has been a concerted attempt to put down the opposition that the president’s policies have aroused as just a variant of the same racism that gave us Jim Crow laws. The purpose of this slander is not to root out the recalcitrant vestiges of race in American politics so much as an effort to delegitimize the push back against the billion-dollar stimulus boondoggle and ObamaCare. The dislike of Obama’s policies created the Tea Party revolt that swept the country in the 2010 midterm elections. It had nothing to do with race and everything to do with opposition to the president’s big government vision.
That means in order to run down die hard racists you wind up talking to people who don’t necessarily fit into the liberal stereotype of a Tea Partier who is motivated more by hatred for Obama’s race than his ideas. One example is a Steubenville bank employee dug up by the Times who says she didn’t vote for Obama in 2008 though she usually backs Democrats. Who then did she vote for? According to the article, she cast her ballot for far left fringe candidate Ralph Nader! The bottom line of this entire discussion is a refusal to take seriously the fact that even in Democratic-leaning counties of this rust belt state, most are judging Obama on the economy and little else.
President Obama’s historic status as the first African-American president brings with it some residual racial resentment but that has been more than overshadowed by the kid glove treatment he and his family have gotten in the mainstream press as well as the willingness by many in the media to brand his opponents guilty of racism until proven innocent. If he wins in 2012 it will not be because he is black nor will it be the explanation for his defeat. That’s exactly the way the vast majority of Americans feel about the question, but as long as the Times and other Obama sympathizers are determined to view his critics largely through the prism of race, it appears we are doomed to more tired efforts to shoehorn modern conservatism into the mold of segregationist sentiment to which it has no connection.