Does racism drive anger over Obama?

(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File)

Is it because he’s black?

The question of whether race fuels opposition to President Barack Obama has become one of the most divisive topics of the election. It is sowing anger and frustration among conservatives who are labeled racist simply for opposing Obama’s policies and liberals who see no other explanation for such deep dislike of the president.

It is an accusation almost impossible to prove, yet it remains inseparable from the African-American experience. The idea, which seemed to die in 2008 when Obama became the first black president, is now rearing its head from college campuses to cable TV as the Democratic incumbent faces Mitt Romney, the white Republican challenger.

Four years after an election that inspired hopes of a post-racial future, there are signs that political passions are dragging us backward.

“We’re at a tipping point,” said Susan Glisson, director of the Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi. “But I don’t know which way we’re going to tip.”

Glisson knows that many conservatives disagree with Obama solely because of his policies. “But I am also quite certain that there are others who object to the president because of his race, because they have a fear of blacks that is embedded in our culture,” she said.

Her conclusion is based on something called “implicit bias”— prejudices that people don’t realize they have.

Studies show that due to longstanding negative stereotypes about African-Americans — which give such false impressions as most black people are dangerous, unintelligent or prefer welfare to work — many people harbor anti-black biases yet don’t even know it. Such unconscious biases, the studies show, are present in people of all backgrounds, not just whites.

“Our history has created this unconscious bias,” said Gail Christopher, vice president of program strategy for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which has funded research on the subject. “Now we need to create safe places to discuss and educate people about unconscious bias, where we are not blaming and shaming them.”

Those safe places generally do not include the political arena.

“Every time they say, ‘We want our country back,’ I know what that means,” Susan Bankston, a white Democratic National Convention delegate from Richmond, Texas, said at the gathering last week.

“You recognize it when every time the Republicans with their own convention refer to him by his first name, Barack Obama. He’s President Barack Obama,” said Patt Sanders, a delegate from Englewood, Calif., who is black.

Such logic inspired James Taranto, a conservative Wall Street Journal columnist, to write: “Every comment from a Republican can be translated, through a process of free association, to: ‘We don’t like black people.’”

At their convention, Republicans made sure to show that the GOP does like black people, showcasing speeches by black and Latino conservatives. Two attendees who threw peanuts at a black camerawoman while commenting “this is what we feed animals” were swiftly ejected and denounced by GOP organizers.

On television, MSNBC host Chris Matthews unleashed an emotional rant at Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, accusing Romney of appealing to anti-black bias with welfare ads and a joke about claims that Obama is not an American citizen.

The actor Alec Baldwin simply tweeted: “If Obama was white, he’d be up by 17 points.”

Said former President Bill Clinton in his speech to the Democratic convention: “Though I often disagree with Republicans, I actually never learned to hate them the way the far right that now controls their party seems to hate our president and a lot of other Democrats.”

All of this is maddening to people like Dan Joseph, a 33-year-old white conservative from northern Virginia.

Joseph is too young to remember past GOP appeals to racial bias, such as Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queens” rhetoric and George H.W. Bush’s infamous Willie Horton ad. He believes Obama should have done more to promote economic growth.

Yet Joseph is often called a racist when he discusses politics. This inspired him to film a satirical video, “Bob is a Racist” (http://bit.ly/SrvPAW ), which lays bare the frustration of many conservatives.

“Things have changed a lot since the 1980s,” Joseph, a video journalist for a conservative media group, said in an interview. “I don’t think food stamps equals blacks. We don’t want people to be on food stamps, black or white.”

So how many conservatives are truly biased against black people? “I don’t know,” Joseph said. “But it’s hard to figure out when one side is assuming that it’s everywhere.”

It’s not everywhere, acknowledges Courtland Milloy, a black columnist for The Washington Post. In a recent dispatch, Milloy described a widespread belief among some black Washingtonians that Republicans are using race against Obama.

“But there unquestionably is racism in some of the opposition,” Milloy said in an interview. “And it should not just be up to black people to identify it and have to deal with it. This is an American problem. It’s not just a black problem.”

That can be difficult for folks who don’t see a problem. Joseph, for one, doesn’t buy the foundational idea of unconscious bias, that America remains afflicted by a racist past. “You get in the real world, and I just don’t see it,” he said.

For him, the bottom line is simple: “I know I’m not a racist, and the conservatives I know aren’t racist.”

The perils of potential offense can be everywhere. Glisson, director of the racial reconciliation institute, recalls a recent meeting with an unfamiliar group of people, including some African-Americans, and telling them about a good location for a professional retreat.

Then Glisson, who is white, mentioned that the location had excellent fried chicken.

She immediately sensed a change in the atmosphere: “They didn’t know that I love fried chicken.” It’s a common occurrence: a statement that can be interpreted either way.

Evan Woodson, a black student at Oklahoma State University, often hears other black people call something racist that he sees as benign: “People seriously act as if whitey is still out to get them in 2012 in Stillwater, Okla. I don’t think that’s the case anymore.”

Woodson does believe that the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow still create disadvantages for African-Americans. But when it comes to politics, he sees racial transgressions from both parties, such as Vice President Joe Biden telling black people that Republicans “want to put y’all back in chains.”

“No matter how you cut it, politicians constantly seem to be accusing the other party of racism,” Woodson said, and that prevents people from having honest conversations about actual racism. “People can’t identify real racism anymore. They’re lost in all the race-baiting.”

Even when racism was a raw fact of American life, it wasn’t always easy to identify. “Something is holding me back / I wonder, is it because I’m black?” Syl Johnson sang in the haunting 1970 soul classic, “Is It Because I’m Black?” (http://bit.ly/QpEmx7 .)

In an interview, Johnson, now 76, said his song was inspired by a twisted saga of land stolen from his family in 1930s Mississippi. He said the song remains relevant today because, he believes, Obama’s blackness is indeed holding him back.

And yet: “Everyone that’s white ain’t no bigot,” Johnson said. “Otherwise Obama never woulda become president.”

___

Jesse Washington covers race and ethnicity for The Associated Press. He is reachable at http://twitter.com/jessewashington or jwashington(at)ap.org.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press

 

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11 Responses to "Does racism drive anger over Obama?"

  1. Alex  September 10, 2012 at 7:51 am

    When the majority of the opposition Party is made up of old white men, it doesn’t take much of a leap to understand that racism is part of the equation.

  2. Sandy Price  September 10, 2012 at 7:51 am

    I fear this commentary is accurate. I cringe every time I hear Gov. Romney say he wants his country back. I would ask myself “Back for What?” and then I realized he meant “Back from what?” I also remember realizing that Mormons were a very unpopular minority and my family seldom mentioned it. Why the lack of sympathy for blacks?

    Mormons have a deep belief that they are superior and they and they alone recognize the Book of Mormon as being the true word of Jesus Christ. They also feel they are superior due to no black blood runs through their veins.

    I read many books about the Mormon Missionaries traveling on missions all over the globe forcing a change within the new people they met along the way. The Mormons made others feel dirty and only a baptism could clean them up before presenting them to Jesus in the after life. Just about every member of my family believed this and I became an outcast for questioning the faith.

    This is a form of racism rejecting all who are not baptized. Mormons think of themselves as a race of people. Sure they take care of each other but they often reject more than they accept. I also fear that most religions are biased rejecting all who claim a different faith.

    America was much better off when the Separation of Church and State was respected. President Bush 43 opened a can of worms when he issued federal grants to the churches. Human nature has not evolved enough for equality.

  3. therealraven  September 10, 2012 at 8:20 am

    All Obama has proved is a Black male is just as capable of screwing up as a White male. Racial parity in presidential politics! Now let is get a woman in there in 2017 to show that incompetence is not limited to males – calling Hillary!

  4. Freethinker2012  September 10, 2012 at 11:32 am

    His success is based upon racism, but only because so many people voted for him merely because of his race. I don’t know too many conservatives who dislike him because of his color, but because of his extreme liberal ideology. But, I know a lot of people who like him just because of his race. It’s a sad day when voters vote for someone because of guilt over past wrongs. Wrongs that never toughed Pres. Obama since he was raised in a white home and his ancestors did not experience racism in America, since they did not come from the USA.

  5. Sandy Price  September 10, 2012 at 11:50 am

    Question for raven. What person or persons would you be able to support for President? I’ve tried to get many people who I thought would be able to keep us out of wars, out of poverty and out of debt.

    I’ve tried Republicans, Libertarians, Reform Party candidates and now I will try a Democrat to head up our federal government. These last 3 years was the first time I ever saw an entire political party organize to work on a candidate or standing President to be discarded like an old bag of trash.

    What seems to be missing is an American who means what he promises. I never once voted or promoted anyone based on religion because I am a non-believer and prayers are redundant in my life.

    I’m at the point where I can’t find any human who would be fit to lead America. I’ve never seen America in such a terrible condition where nothing can be found to make up for the past mess that has taken hold of our government. I cannot possibly trust Gov. Romney as he has not been able to function in any way without contacting the Prophet in the Salt Lake City Temple.

    Washington D.C. was designed to work as a team with the Congress and Supreme Court and the White House.. I helped many of our Mexican workers apply and get their citizenship and explaining the three parts of our government was a thrilling experience.

    Could it be that the voters do not understand this triad of authority Do they not realize the power they have in choosing both houses of congress combined with the Judges to work as a team?

    • therealraven  September 12, 2012 at 9:38 am

      Sandy:

      A third party with Mitch Daniels and Jim Webb. I’d support either if they ran for their party. Obama is a failure – simple as that – his supporters can sanitize it all they want – failure is what it is.

      Romney will just be an extension of that failure.

  6. woody188  September 10, 2012 at 6:06 pm

    Oh great, so now all non-blacks are implicitly racist and don’t even know it. What utter nonsense. Were black democrats racist when they “wanted their country back” from Dubya? No, of course not. It was his policies of fear, unending war, and the creation of “free speech zones” that they hated. It’s the same with Obama continuing those same policies.

    “No matter how you cut it, politicians constantly seem to be accusing the other party of racism,” Woodson said, and that prevents people from having honest conversations about actual racism. “People can’t identify real racism anymore. They’re lost in all the race-baiting.”

    Finally some sensibility. They use race to divide us. It’s that simple.

  7. Danny Adams  September 10, 2012 at 6:47 pm

    A friend of mine recently summed it up nicely: “To my liberal friends, please accept the fact that not all criticisms of Obama are racist. To my conservative friends, please accept the fact that some of them are.”

  8. Sandy Price  September 10, 2012 at 8:28 pm

    I have brought up racism based on my knowledge of the Mormon founders of this new faith. Today Romney has been playing footsie with Pat Robertson trying to tell many that Obama wants to take God out of our government even down to our money. I’m surprised that he isn’t going on and on about Obama’s Kenyan birth. There is no depth that Romney will not fall to make Obama a hated human being.

    I know these Mormons and they will never stop until America becomes a Mormon nation.There is nothing kind and loving when it comes to these horrible people who want their own nation. They will destroy Islam and of course women will be degraded as being whores.

    This is not my America.

  9. Pondering_It_All  September 10, 2012 at 8:55 pm

    I think there quite a few GOP strategists who may not be particularly racist themselves, but are using race as just another way to manipulate their less-sophisticated party supporters. The same way they have appealed to people’s fears about gays, liberals, socialists, foreigners, Big Government, gun seizure, identity cards, the UN’s Black Helicopters, etc.

    When the issues and differences between party positions are complex or subtle, they need something like “Black Muslim Kenyan Socialist Boogyman coming for your guns” to make voting and contributing to the party seem more important. For example, try explaining to the average voter the difference between RomneyCare and ObamaCare, and why they should support one and oppose the other!

  10. voice  September 13, 2012 at 1:49 am

    It is not about the color. It is about how people behave as a race. I think it is a racial discrimination to vote for a candidate based on the color of his skin and not his content… You have nearly 100% of black polled who will be voting for Obama. Why? Do they all agree with his everything? Or just because the color of his skin? Put it the other way. If 100% of white voted for Romney, the like of Jesse Jackson would cry bloody racism. Racism cut both ways. Many white voted for Obama and yet when racism is discussed, it is always the white who discriminates the black. But when over 95% of black who voted AGAINST McCain, one can’t help thinking of a reverse racial discrimination going on. All the comments and discussions are dishonest when they automatically assume black is the only victim of racial discrimination in this country.

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