Commentary Magazine


Topic: race relations

Can Obama Repair the Damage He’s Done to Race Relations Before Leaving Office?

Heady optimism, embedded as it is in the American genetic code, was perhaps never more pronounced than in the wake of Barack Obama’s 2008 victory. Even the most cynical among us looked forward to the effect that the election of the first black president would have on lingering racial disparity and antipathy. Six and a half years later, and that sanguinity seems as misplaced as was the belief that the president’s very aura would force the tides to recede. Americans believe that Barack Obama has failed to live up to his promise on the issue of race, and polls suggest racial comity has receded to its lowest point since before Bill Clinton took office. The president and his administration bear much of the blame for this condition, but can Obama repair his legacy on race relations before he leaves office?

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Heady optimism, embedded as it is in the American genetic code, was perhaps never more pronounced than in the wake of Barack Obama’s 2008 victory. Even the most cynical among us looked forward to the effect that the election of the first black president would have on lingering racial disparity and antipathy. Six and a half years later, and that sanguinity seems as misplaced as was the belief that the president’s very aura would force the tides to recede. Americans believe that Barack Obama has failed to live up to his promise on the issue of race, and polls suggest racial comity has receded to its lowest point since before Bill Clinton took office. The president and his administration bear much of the blame for this condition, but can Obama repair his legacy on race relations before he leaves office?

The spate of urban violence that rocked the nation over the course of the last nine months has led political observers to wonder whether the defining themes of the 2016 election would closely resemble those in 1968, when a losing war abroad and unrest at home propelled the “law and order” candidate into the White House. The present urban tension has its roots in fertile soil composed of chronically high black unemployment, a disproportionate African-American male prison population, and racial agitation on the part of this president and his administration.

The president’s allies spent much of the 2012 election campaign tearing at the American social fabric, particularly on the issue of race, in order to propel the beleaguered president back into the White House. Former Attorney General Eric Holder might be the worst offender in this arena. America’s chief law enforcement officer has in the past insisted that the nation was composed of “cowards,” merely because they failed to come to his preferred conclusion on matters racial. He denounced the treatment he and the president had received from Republicans as “unprecedented, unwarranted, ugly, and divisive” before a predominantly African-American audience at Rev. Al Sharpton’s tax-evading charity. Holder has insisted that the ubiquitous and anodyne political petition to “take the country back” has a racial component when uttered by Republicans, though he was curiously silent about Hillary Clinton’s use of this phrase.

The president’s supporters in the media dutifully mimicked their allies in the administration, and proceeded to perfect the art of racial agitation. 2012 was the lamentable year in which the pet project of divining racial animus from everyday language was refined in liberal venues like MSNBC. “Coded” racial language became a pet fascination for the carnival barkers in the left-leaning opinion press. Words like “golf,” “Monday,” “apartment” and even “Constitution” were dubbed racially suspect.

All of this agitation has undoubtedly had far-reaching repercussions. But as the president begins to contemplate his legacy, he is perhaps looking to retroactively validate his approach to addressing racial grievances.

On Monday, the president restricted some of the surplus military equipment that could be purchased by local police forces; a policy aimed at reducing tensions between law enforcement and the communities they police. While justifying that policy shift, the president made note of the fact that racial tensions cannot be tackled comprehensively if we are unwilling to speak honestly about the subject.

One of the things I also want to focus on is the fact that a lot of the issues that have been raised here and in places like Baltimore and Ferguson and New York goes beyond policing. We can’t ask the police to contain and control problems that the rest of us aren’t willing to face or do anything about. If we as a society don’t do more to expand opportunity to everybody who is willing to work for it, then we’ll end up seeing conflicts between law enforcement and residents. If we as a society aren’t willing to deal honestly with issues of race, then we can’t just expect police departments to solve these problems.

If communities are being isolated and segregated without opportunity and without investment and without jobs, if we, politicians, are simply ramping up long sentences for nonviolent drug crimes that end up devastating communities, we can’t then ask the police to be the ones to solve the problem when there are no able bodied men in the community. Or kids are growing up without intact households.

There is no shortage of irony in this statement from a president who once said Florida teen Trayvon Martin looked like the son he never had, a clear implication that there was a racial element to his killing, well before the jury that would eventually acquit George Zimmerman of wrongdoing was even empanelled. But these are praiseworthy comments, nonetheless.

“Too many fathers are M.I.A, too many fathers are AWOL, missing from too many lives and too many homes,” Obama said courageously before a black audience in 2008. “They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.”

Obama largely abandoned that premise over the course of his presidency, but his return to the theme is noble. Obama’s embrace of criminal justice reforms, particularly those relating to the practice of creating felons out of non-violent drug offenders, is equally laudable.

Americans are optimists, and that characteristic is perhaps evident in praise for the president’s most recent attempt to tackle lingering racial resentment. In concert with Obama’s post-presidential goal of serving as a role model for disaffected black male youth, the president seems to have made it a priority to at long last have a positive effect on interracial relations in America. Let’s hope he succeeds in that endeavor.

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Barack Obama and Racial Double Standards

Late last week I heard from a theologian of liberal leanings, someone with whom I have been in (often friendly) correspondence for years. He wrote me to voice his objections to my recent “diatribes” against President Obama. That didn’t particularly surprise me. What did surprise me is how he framed his objections. He didn’t take issue with the facts I’ve presented or even my interpretation of the facts. Rather, his concerns were expressed this way:

When I read your constant barrages aimed at the first black president, I think to myself, “Doesn’t Pete, the devout Christian, understand what it took to get to this place? And where would Pete have been in the years of the freedom struggle that finally eventuated in some measure of equality for African-Americans and even a black president?” Isn’t there some way you can temper your attacks on Obama with this history in mind?

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Late last week I heard from a theologian of liberal leanings, someone with whom I have been in (often friendly) correspondence for years. He wrote me to voice his objections to my recent “diatribes” against President Obama. That didn’t particularly surprise me. What did surprise me is how he framed his objections. He didn’t take issue with the facts I’ve presented or even my interpretation of the facts. Rather, his concerns were expressed this way:

When I read your constant barrages aimed at the first black president, I think to myself, “Doesn’t Pete, the devout Christian, understand what it took to get to this place? And where would Pete have been in the years of the freedom struggle that finally eventuated in some measure of equality for African-Americans and even a black president?” Isn’t there some way you can temper your attacks on Obama with this history in mind?

In a follow-up note to me, he elaborated on this matter, saying, “The presidency of an African -American is a dramatic symbol of the advances in the struggle for human rights in this country so long denied to black citizens. Unless you have a record deep in the civil rights struggle, relentless attacks on this symbol will be seen as giving aid and comfort to, if not an expression of, the latent racism that is still much with us in this country. That is why criticisms of this president-as-symbol are not to be made in the same way as the conventional political fisticuffs.”

This was, I thought, an instructive, if discouraging, window into the modern liberal mind.

Set aside the fact that this country that is so filled with “latent racism” elected Obama by the largest margin of any Democratic since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and that he took office with extraordinary good will from the American people.

For the sake of the argument, let’s stipulate that my criticisms of the president are, in fact, entirely justified based on the facts and the record. It would still not matter to him. Why? Because this “president-as-symbol” means he should be held to a different standard than a non-African American. Normal standards of truth, evidence and argument no longer apply. Obama needs to be treated with kid gloves — even if he makes false and malicious charges against others and, in the process, does great damage to our civic and political culture.

To put it another way: the theologian I heard from is insisting that my criticisms of President Obama need to be muted because he is a black man — and unless I have a “record deep in the civil rights struggle” (I was barely out of diapers during the Selma-to-Montgomery marches) criticizing him in the ways I have will “be seen as giving aid and comfort to, if not an expression of, the latent racism that is still much with us in this country.” So there you have it: laying out my philosophical and political disagreements with Obama, in the manner I have, is stoking racist elements in American society — and if I don’t want to be complicit in the rise of racial hatred in America, I need to “temper” my “attacks” on the president.

I pointed out to my interlocutor that (a) being a Christian doesn’t mean one must accept bad arguments and (b) accepting his critique is condescending. He has convinced himself that he is standing up for blacks and civil rights even as he is saying that we cannot treat them as equals. The rules that apply to others don’t apply to America’s first African-American president. Those who are advancing such a view are doing blacks no favor — and I for one cannot believe that President Obama would want to be judged by the color of his skin (which is what this theologian is insisting on) rather than the content of his character and the quality of his record.

The proposition that because Obama is the first black president we should treat him differently than we would treat a non-black is one many of us simply reject. A color-blind standard is of course at the heart of the case laid out by Martin Luther King Jr.

Ten days after President Obama took office, I offered four predictions, the first of which was this one: “while Obama is riding high, race relations will be excellent. But once Obama goes down in the polls and he does things that elicit criticism, be prepared for the ‘race card’ to be played. If it is, then race relations could be set back, because the charges will be so transparently false. If race was used by Obamacons against Bill Clinton, it will certainly be used against Republicans.”

That prediction has played itself out innumerable times since the dawn of the Obama Era. And it’s only going to get worse, as my recent exchange shows.

 

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