16 April 2012

Has Obama made race relations worse?

From the moment Barack Obama was elected President in 2008 intelligent observers should have guessed that any harmonizing effect his election would have on race relations would only emerge over the long term. Despite the surprise affected by two Newsweek reporters over the findings from their poll, which show that most Americans feel that race relations have gotten worse since Obama took office, it was inevitable, given the ideological polarization of the country and the partisan solidarity of most black Americans, that racial tensions would grow in some way or another during his term. It was inevitable not only because the Republican party carries the legacy of the 1960s "Southern Strategy"but because blacks are more likely to reduce all criticism of Obama from the opposing party to racist backlash. Some go so far as to attribute all liberal or progressive criticism of Obama to racism as well, at least one black apologist complaining that white leftists aren't holding him to the same standard they judged Bill Clinton by. Prejudices aside, Newsweek acknowledges persisting differences in experience that result in differences in attitude. Perhaps the most relevant difference is the finding that "Blacks are four times more likely than whites to say they have been unfairly stopped by police." In essence, the "racial divide" may simply separate the profiled from the (supposedly) unprofiled. And that's where the late Trayvon Martin and his alleged murderer, George Zimmerman, come in.

One instance in which Newsweek finds that Obama himself, rather than the fact of his election, has exacerbated the race divide is his intervention in the Martin case. The reporters claim that public opinion was universally on Martin's side, with Republicans condemning the shooting across the board, until the President made his infamous utterance, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon." At that point, the reporters write, "conservatives pulled a 180" and whites in general (Newsweek doesn't break down white responses along party lines) expressed disapproval of the President. Why should this be? The authors write off the Republican aspect of it to knee-jerk partisanship, but that doesn't account for all of it. It's not as if whites didn't know that Martin was black before Obama spoke -- but it is as if they were willing to sympathize with him and condemn Zimmerman as long as they could see the incident in terms of an idiot with an itchy trigger finger, but grew less willing once anyone suggested that race had anything to do with Zimmerman's alleged conduct. It's also as if whites can't concede that some of their number (not necessarily including Zimmerman) still hate blacks without feeling profiled in their own particular way. Whites resent the charge of racism nearly as much as blacks resent actual racism. Unfortunately, this is a vicious circle, since the assumption that a black person will automatically resort to the "race card" to defend himself against objective criticism is itself sort of racist, and we shouldn't be surprised if blacks see it that way -- while whites could just as well assume that an assumption of racism on their part by blacks is itself bigoted. Obama may well have made things worse if you presume that the occupant of the White House should have no race -- that Obama should no more speak as a black man while President than John F. Kennedy, for instance, should have spoken as a Catholic, or Mitt Romney, should he get the chance, as a Mormon. But your skin color shouldn't determine whether you can speak against racism, no matter what institutional identity you assume. The most one can say in the Martin case is that public figures should avoid statements that might prejudice jurors for or against Zimmerman, on the assumption that any mention of Martin's race as a cause of his death automatically implicates Zimmerman as a hate-criminal. But by that standard no one should speak about it, and while I could see why this shouldn't necessarily be a national news story, I can also understand why it is. Martin's death itself doesn't prove Newsweek's point, but everything afterward seems to. Realistically, one can't expect a dead halt to racial animosity and racially-charged polemics. But a day has to come when a black person's Americanism is not questioned, and he doesn't blame Whitey in some way when things go wrong in his life. Why can't he just blame the rich like everyone else?...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't believe race relations have gotten any worse. More out in the open, perhaps. Racists are becoming more outspoken then they have been in decades. But it hasn't gotten any worse. I think in the main stream, things may have improved ever so slightly.

But the fact that minority groups are still viewed on both sides as "black Americans", "Asian Americans", "Latino" or "Hispanic Americans", "gay" or "lesbian Americans" rather than simply as "Americans" proves there is definitely still a problem.

And that problem stems directly from the "us vs. them" mentality so many Americans exhibit. If muslim terrorists are religious extremists, let's coin a term and call these types "tribal extremists".