TIME Race

On Obama and Race, It’s Not Black and White

Is race the key to understanding how Republicans view the president? Only if you ignore how they treated Bill Clinton.

In the wake of speeches such as President Obama’s this week on the occasion of the sesquicentennial of the Civil Rights Act, it is customary to say that on race “We’ve come a long way but we have a long way to go.” And the true intent of the statement is less to celebrate than to sigh. We are to keep ever in mind that we haven’t come as far as we might think.

However, the very way in which race is discussed so often these days indicates happier news than many perceive. I refer to, of all things, the role that racism has played in Republicans’ reception of our president.

“Oh, you just know what really bothers them about him is his race,” is the expected response here — during the delivery of which one could surely detect a distinct spike in endorphins. To the non-Republican in 2014, to identify this racism is a badge of one’s awareness of racism’s existence and power. One must know this, feel it, and say it. One has done one’s job.

And here is how we know how far we have come — in the sheer vehemence, even fury, with which this opinion is typically vented. A sterling example is the response to Jonathan Chait’s piece this week suggesting some moderation in how the racism charge is leveled at the right.

Though Chait is no right-wing partisan and thoroughly outlines the extent to which race does play a part in the right’s rhetoric, he has been brutally slammed by people left of center — and I refer in particular to non-black writers, for whom racism isn’t even a personal experience. The bilious tone of Chait’s critics signals something beyond opinion: This is argument from something more like personhood, of the kind we associate with religion. And as ordinary as this response to a piece like Chait’s seems today, the prospect of it ever happening would have seemed like science fiction to someone watching the Civil Rights Act being signed 50 years ago.

We have gone from a society in which it was ordinary for whites to have a deep-seated, near-religious opposition to black people to one in which it is ordinary for many whites to have a deep-seated, near-religious commitment to showing awareness that remnants of that racism still exist. That is as much a defining feature of what America is today as the racism itself.

On racism and Obama, we know that this feature has become as much creed as opinion in that it elides, as all creeds do, certain empirical facts. When people say racism plays “a part” in how the right sees Obama, they consider it by far the most interesting part — in fact, it would seem fair to say, the main part. “It’s all about race,” one hears said, with confidence and a distinct sense that the discussion is closed.

But this neglects what hatred of Bill Clinton was like in the ’90s, as Chait has noted. The searing contempt so many very white people had for the man — some of the same who now hate Obama — was as near-recreational as today’s against Obama can be, including goofy speculation that the Clintons got people killed. And the reason was their hatred of a charismatic Democrat trying to change how the nation works.

Another one: We are to assume that the Tea Party would not exist if Obama weren’t black. But who can say that John Edwards, if he hadn’t been waylaid by scandal and had won, wouldn’t have inspired a similar animus? Encouraging class conflict, not exactly clubby in his public persona, married to an accomplished and public-spirited woman who wasn’t going to be “home making cookies” any more than Hillary Clinton was — would Republicans in today’s climate have liked him any more than they do Obama? Wouldn’t they have come up with names to call him other than racial ones? Recall that from the right, he was at one point termed with a word beginning with F that has six letters.

All of which is to say that the idea that racism is anything like the reason why Republicans don’t like Obama is one that reasonable people will differ on. I’m the last person to deny that race plays a part in how the right processes the president. It may be 50 years after the Civil Rights Act, but it isn’t 100 years after it. Even over 50 years, people only change so much.

But is race the main issue here? That is, in the history books, will the verdict be that Obama got so little done beyond health care reform because of how people like Mitch McConnell and Rep. Joe “You lie!” Wilson feel or don’t feel about black people? Doubtful — and yet, one is not even to “go there” in certain circles today.

And that, as ticklish and even acrid as it can be here in the present tense, is a sign of true progress in this country. Imagine telling Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King that there would be a time when a numerous and influential component of white people would be irate at the proposition that racism was not the defining trait of one political party?

We’ve come a long way.

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