Why We Need to Talk About Obama and Racism

Let me say this clearly so there are no misunderstandings: some of the protests against President Obama are howls of rage at the fact that we have an African-American head of state. I'm sick of all the code words used when this subject comes up, so be assured that I am saying exactly what I mean. Oh, and in response to the inevitable complaints that I am playing the race card—race isn't a political parlor game. It is a powerful fault line in a nation that bears the scars of slavery, a civil war, Jim Crow, a mind-numbing number of assassinations, and too many riots to count. It is naive and disingenuous to say otherwise.

So when Idaho gubernatorial candidate Rex Rammell jokes about hunting the president or South Carolina GOP activist Rusty DePass calls an escaped gorilla one of Michelle Obama's ancestors, it's racist. Which, in case of confusion, is the "ideology that all members of each racial group possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially to distinguish it as being either superior or inferior to another racial group." (That's from the Oxford English Dictionary, but leave the Brits out of this.) When "Tea Party" leader Mark Williams ap-pears on CNN and speaks of "working-class people" taking "their" country back from a lawfully elected president, he is not just protesting Obama's politics; he is griping over the fact that this country's most powerful positions are no longer just for white men. No, I do not believe that everyone who disagrees with Obama is racist. But racists do exist in this country, and they don't like having a black president.

Did anyone think it would be otherwise? There were always going to be aftershocks in an Obama presidency. Landmark events that change the paradigm between black and white people don't happen without repercussions—some are still complaining about Brown v. Board of Education. Black skin has meant something very specific in this country for hundreds of years. It has meant "less than," "not as good as," "separate than," and even "equal to." It has never meant "better than" unless you were talking about dancing, singing, or basketball. Obama represents "better than," and that's scary for people who think of black people as shaved gorillas.

So color me a little offended when the "mainstream media" suddenly discovered that there might be a racial element to the attacks on Obama. Maureen Dowd's Sept. 13 column in The New York Times is a perfect example: "I've been loath to admit that the shrieking lunacy of the summer—the frantic efforts to paint our first black president as the Other, a foreigner, socialist, fascist, Marxist, racist, Commie, Nazi; a cad who would snuff old people; a snake who would indoctrinate kids—had much to do with race." But at least she did acknowledge it. A Times piece just a day earlier explained why Obama is so unpopular in Louisiana and somehow managed to omit race as a factor. It took 20 paragraphs for a Politico column titled "What's the Matter With South Carolina?" to mention race. This hesitancy to even speak of racism widens the divide between readers and the journalists who are supposed to be covering the world as it is, not as they want it to be. It also explains, at least in part, the popularity of alternative news sources like The Daily Show or the Huffington Post that love to identify racist double-talk.

I had actually been looking forward to the aftershocks of an Obama victory. Maybe I'm the one who's naive, but I thought of the election of the first African-American president as the ultimate teachable moment. I wasn't expecting a holiday. But almost anything, really, would be better than all this "post-racial" and "Kumbaya" crap we're being peddled. Even though Oprah and Will Smith are beloved by Americans of all hues, they are still exceptions in a country where judging people based on the color of their skin is a habit we've yet to break.

I get it. Race issues are scary. There are few souls brave enough to say what they think about race relations outside the privacy of their homes or the anonymity of the Internet. But rather than deal with the discomfort of talking about race, we've continued to follow outdated rules about what words can be said by whom or, even worse, to stay silent. As if not speaking of racism will somehow make it go away. Silence, even the well-meaning kind, rarely wins an argument. It just allows the lunatic fringe to fill the vacuum in the public debate. And this reluctance doesn't help the effort to achieve racial equality, it hurts it.