When David Letterman asked Barack Obama the other night whether he shared Jimmy Carter’s view that much of the venom directed at him could be explained by racism, the president replied with his best applause line of the show: “First of all, it’s important to realize that I was actually black before the election” — meaning, of course, that racism couldn’t be all that important. (Letterman shot back, “How long have you been a black man?”)
But Obama’s answer, cute though it was, doesn’t really help. For a majority of those who voted, Obama’s color was incidental or, in more than a few cases, a positive incentive. But among the substantial minority who voted for McCain-Palin, there were surely those for whom Obama’s color was a fatal flaw.
Now Obama, along with David Brooks and Frank Rich and David Gergen and just about everyone else who has had something to say on the matter have opined that while race is somewhere in the mix of the vitriolic attacks on the president, it is not at their center. In one version or another, the commentators make reference to the long-standing American tradition of angry protest. Obama cites the epithets hurled at Franklin Roosevelt and also at Ronald Reagan; others cite different precedents. All agree that decorum has not been a constant — far from it — in America’s political history.
True enough, but my own hunch is that Jimmy Carter is more nearly correct. There is an undercurrent of such profound loathing of Obama that cannot adequately be explained away by reference to our more boorish traditions. One surely understands why Obama himself is dead set against falling back on race, why he instead blames the media for exaggerating the ugliness, observes that rudeness makes good copy for journalists. One can understand why the nation’s pundits do not want us to get dragged into a sterile debate on the centrality of race: We may not yet be the “post-racial” society the election seemed to affirm, but for sure we are moving in a healthy direction.
Yet most of the people I know, as I myself, see race as very much the key to the ugly puzzle. For all the contempt many of us felt toward George W. Bush, there was little of the over-the-top malice of the tea parties. Sure, there are other things at play now. There’s the phenomenon of right-wing populism, curiously combined with a solid streak of libertarianism, all embracing an attitude toward government that goes beyond suspicion, that comes very close to hatred. For that, we may blame not only the dislocations of the Great Recession, the scandals that have led people to disdain those who govern, the evidence of government not only by spin but also by lies; for that we may blame a tradition that dates back, of all people, to Jimmy Carter, who based his campaign for the presidency on a denunciation of Washington. Carter chose to do that, presumably, because he’d been a governor and had to explain how a governor was qualified to lead the country. And the explanation he offered was that the people who’d been managing the government were themselves not qualified. Throw the rascals out. Since Carter’s time, just about every candidate for the presidency has seen fit to run against the government: Government’s the problem.
And now that besmirched government is led by — well, by a stranger. By, you should excuse the expression, an uppity stranger. I keep replaying in my head an episode from my high school years. I lived then in Baltimore, which was a segregated city, by which I mean segregation was the law. In my senior year in high school, I was vice president of the student body, and a month or so before Brotherhood Day — there was such a day — I came to the principal of my school and suggested that we might invite the choir from Dunbar High, the leading public high school for Negroes, to sing on our stage to mark the day. The principal looked up at me from behind his desk and replied, “Don’t you think that would be going a little too far?”
And when I visited South Africa during the height of the apartheid system, I learned that according to law, no black could ever be in a position of authority over a white. That meant, for example, that taxi dispatchers had to be white, since it would have been against the law for a black dispatcher to give instructions to a white driver.
In Baltimore, in America, in South Africa, we have climbed out of the cesspool of formal bigotry. No more back of the bus. But to suppose that we are now free of all stench is absurd. Where is the Republican leadership that is willing to denounce Rush Limbaugh and the rest of the fringe — or is it the base? The most recent poll results of the Pew Research Center show that Obama remains wildly popular among Democrats, solidly popular among independents and powerfully opposed by Republicans. A majority of Republicans (61%) feel Obama is not trustworthy, 41% feel he is not well-informed and 51% feel “he does not care about people like me.” (Among Democrats, the answers go the other way; Obama scores 91%, 89% and 91% approval on those three assessments. Among independents, the approvals decline to 63%, 70% and 71%.)
We are in the midst of a wrenching debate on health care reform, and, given the posture of the Republican Party regarding the proposed reforms, it makes sense that most Republicans take a dim view of the president. But not trustworthy? Not well-informed? Read: Not legitimate. That is the Obama-specific core of the current matter. And that, impure and simple, is racism.