The Age of Obama has brought many things to the American scene–none more important than the proof that skin color is no barrier to success. But for some white Americans, it has also helped crystallize a sense of dislocation, anger and powerlessness.
Some, like Wilkerson’s group, have even adopted the language and techniques used by blacks, women, Latinos and gays in their civil rights struggles. But some analysts ask: Is this white victimhood? Strident TV host Glenn Beck of Fox News Channel tapped into the feeling this summer when he accused Obama of having “a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.”
For some, it was reinforced by the sight of a New Haven, Conn., firefighter telling senators that the Latina judge Obama had nominated to the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor, had discriminated against him in an appellate case because he is white. Or Obama condemning the arrest of a black Harvard professor by a white police officer.
“White America needs to be heard from, not just lectured to,” wrote commentator Patrick J. Buchanan in response to Obama’s speech on race during the 2008 campaign. “This time, the Silent Majority needs to have its convictions, grievances and demands heard.” Among the grievances: affirmative action provisions that “advance black applicants over white applicants.”
Ron Walters, an emeritus professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland who was a campaign manager for the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1980s presidential bids, has written that today’s anti-tax “tea party” protests and heated town hall rhetoric are reminiscent of the conservative resurgence of the 1970s. That movement was driven in part by racial hostility and the ability of its leaders to convince white followers that they were victims. (The years after the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act saw court-ordered integration of schools and the adoption of affirmative action programs.)
The fact that Obama is not just liberal, but black, said Walters, adds to the resentment.
But Dallas Woodhouse, the North Carolina director of the conservative Americans for Prosperity, said that people like Walters “are reading the memo that came out of Washington to pull the race card out.”
“It’s not about race,” he said. “It’s about socialism. . . . I think it’s actually the policies that are scaring people.”
But Drew Westen, a psychologist at Emory University who has worked for Democrats, said feelings of victimhood were stoked by Republicans during Senate hearings for Sotomayor. “They attacked her as a racist, and where they scored points is with a lot of Americans–not only with conservatives, but a lot of Democratic white males–who have been on the losing end of affirmative action,” he said.
In Westen’s view, Republicans were able “to make the case that whites are getting a bad deal.”
On Wednesday, former President Carter entered the fray. The lifelong Georgia resident told NBC’s Brian Williams that “an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man.”
Jared Taylor, a controversial writer who calls himself a “race realist” but has been described by one civil rights activist as “the cultivated, cosmopolitan face of white supremacy,” said the enormous demographic changes of the last few decades fuel the idea that whites are losing ground.
“To the extent that white people in some inchoate way see Obama as a symbol of their dispossession, it’s only that they have not been seeing what has been going on for years,” said Taylor.
The Census Bureau estimates that whites will become a minority in 2042. Citing that fact, Taylor added, “No other people in the history of the world has given up numerical and cultural dominance willingly. The majority of whites did not vote for Barack Obama.” (Obama received 43% of the white vote.)
For all the sense of disempowerment, whites still surpass other groups by many measures. Eighty percent of the Senate is white male. Seventy-four percent of white, non-Latino households own their homes, compared with 48% for blacks and Latinos.
Mark Potok, who directs the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project–and the activist who called Taylor a white supremacist–agreed with Taylor that changing demographics are stoking fear. “Obama’s election simply makes visceral what was already occurring, which is a very major changeover from a society that really has been dominated by white people to a society that is generally multiracial,” Potok said.
American political discourse has always contained an angry fringe, and the emotional rallies and occasionally ugly rhetoric of Obama’s opponents are neither new nor especially extreme, according to political scientists. Courting white voters’ sense of victimhood is nothing new, either.
President Nixon appealed to Southern whites by exploiting concerns about civil rights reforms and the cultural upheaval of the times. And in 1988, George H.W. Bush used a TV political ad that featured a menacing mug shot of Willie Horton, a black convicted murderer, in his successful drive to beat Michael S. Dukakis for the presidency.
The election of Barack Obama was supposed to be the bright new dawn of a post-racial America. His swearing in on the steps of Washington’s Capitol building seemed to represent a historical watershed, a full stop at the end of a chapter in United States history that included segregation and slavery.
So what has gone wrong with America since that frigid January day? Turn on the news now and we are assailed with reports of disgracefully racist placards being carried at anti-Obama rallies nominally billed as opposition to health-care reform.
A virulent campaign by the so-called “Birthers” is being waged, in which it is alleged that Mr Obama was really born in Kenya rather than Hawaii and is therefore not qualified to be commander-in-chief.
A white Congressman from the Deep South shouts, “You lie!” at the first black president and refuses to apologise to fellow members of the House of Representatives. Democrats and their media allies mutter darkly that Congressman Joe Wilson really meant “You boy!”
This is not a fringe accusation. Even former President Jimmy Carter, himself a son of the segregated South, stated baldly that Mr Wilson’s intemperate outburst was “based on racism” and ran “deeper” than mere policy opposition. “There is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president,” he said.
But wait a minute. Mr Obama convincingly prevailed over John McCain in last November’s election, an event that many American liberals argued could never happen in “racist” America. He has, moreover, not been shot by a redneck, giving the lie to an almost routine pre-election assertion in Europe that a black man could never be elected President, and if he was, he would be assassinated.
The election was a little over 10 months ago. Has America really turned around and stumbled back into the sulphurous swamps of racial hatred?
The short answer is no. Mr Obama is becoming a much less popular figure than he was when he entered office, partly because of the usual laws of political gravity, but also because of the unrealistic expectations he encouraged and the number of mistakes he has made.
To dismiss race as a factor in either last November’s election or current political debate would be foolish. It was, of course, ludicrous to expect that the US would become a post-racial country overnight. History–and racial tension–did not stop with the election of Mr Obama.
In the 2008 vote, 96 per cent of blacks voted for the then Illinois senator. Since then, the demographic that is most disappointed by him is whites. According to a recent Pew Research poll, white support for Mr Obama has plunged by 11 points since April.
Part of the reason for this is Mr Obama’s own extraordinary life story and the part it played in his election. As the son of a black Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas who was an infant at the height of the civil rights era, Mr Obama was a candidate who stood outside the mainstream African-American experience.
He had grown up in multi-racial Hawaii and been raised by a white mother and white grandparents. His Harvard Law School pedigree, ease in any kind of racial setting and palpable comfort in his own skin gave him extraordinary appeal among whites. He made white Americans feel better about themselves.
Mr Obama was as different as it was possible to be from the likes of the Rev Jesse Jackson and the Rev Al Sharpton, black politicians who had built their careers on exploiting racial grievances. He was not the Rev Reginald Bacon, the Harlem racial agitator in Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, the 1987 blockbuster novel that centred on racial tensions in the Big Apple; instead, he was Bishop Warren Bottomley.
The churchman, Wolfe wrote, was “one of those well-educated, urbane black people who immediately create the Halo Effect in the eyes of white people. . .He was handsome, slender, about forty-five, athletic in build. He had a ready smile, a glittering eye, a firm handshake. . .”
It was a remarkably prescient description of Mr Obama. As now Vice President Joe Biden put it in a characteristic stream of consciousness that condemned him to the ranks of also-ran presidential candidates: “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”
Layered on to this were Mr Obama’s own assiduous efforts to make himself acceptable in the eyes of black voters. A key element of this was rooting himself in his wife Michelle’s home city of Chicago, where he joined the Trinity United Church of Christ. The pastor there was the Rev Jeremiah Wright, a character who, with his ranting sermons about the “US of KKK” and “God Damn America”, even Tom Wolfe might have blushed at creating.
Once he had established his African-American credentials, Mr Obama’s church attendance dropped off. After staging a very public show of looking for a church in Washington this year, Mr Obama quietly elected to make his place of worship the chapel at the presidential retreat at Camp David. His Christianity–much vaunted during the campaign, not least to inoculate him against his Muslim background–seems to be of the Easter-and-Christmas variety.
Mr Obama’s rhetorical brilliance saved his campaign from imploding when the furore over his association with Wright broke, just as he was overcoming Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries. One of the impressions that was left, however, was that he was prepared to use the issue of race when it suited him. Strategically, he knew that to be painted as “the black candidate” would be a political death sentence, but tactically he was prepared to work the racial angles.
Similarly, Mr Obama has been anxious to avoid being boxed into the category of “first black president”. But he foolishly waded into a controversy over the arrest of a black Harvard professor by a white policeman, trying to score an easy political point by criticising the seemingly blameless officer.
More seriously, Mr Obama is the leader of a Democratic party that is now coming dangerously close to proclaiming that any fervent opposition to him must spring from a racist impulse.
In targeting Mr Wilson, they appear to have the wrong man. A previously anonymous congressman, all of whose four sons have served in the US military–two in Iraq–he comes across more as an ordinary American who let his mouth run away with him than as a venomous racist.
His shout, moreover, reflected a manifestation of genuine anger felt by many ordinary Americans about the wholesale state intervention of the Obama administration that amounts to an ambitious and radical transformation of the country. Crying racism can be a cheap way of shutting down debate.
By attempting to marginalise Mr Wilson as a racist, Democrats are playing a dangerous game because, as Armstrong Williams, a black conservative, lamented in his Washington Times column yesterday, “preventing people from discussing diverse ideas only stimulates hatred”.
Some of the opposition to Mr Obama is unquestionably racially motivated. Rusty LePass, a South Carolina Republican, was rightly vilified after commenting on his Facebook page about a report of a gorilla escape from a zoo: “I’m sure it’s just one of Michelle’s ancestors–probably harmless.” And a number of the signs at Saturday’s Obama rally were, to put it mildly, unfortunate. One depicted a lion with the words: “The Zoo has an African [lion] and the White House has a Lyin’ African.”
Mr Obama’s election was a moment of triumph for the US and a major step towards erasing the awful stain of slavery. The president himself has a nuanced, sophisticated approach to racial matters.
He is in danger, however, of allowing race to be the principal political weapon used by Democrats against Republicans. A failure to show presidential leadership by calling a halt to this folly could fuel opposition to the Obama agenda–and unpick the scab of racism just as the old wounds were beginning to heal.