In many ways that picture captures how the presidency of Barack Obama has changed the country. Young black boys growing up in this era have a different perception of what is possible in their lives. And every day children of other races and genders are presented with an alternative to the image of the "angry black man" that has been so embedded in our culture. We should never underestimate the power of that shift.
But what about the rest of us? A lot of pundits suggest that the presidency of Barack Obama has polarized the racial divide in this country. And there's some truth to that. At no point in my adult life has race been more front and center as an issue than its been over the last 6 years. And so the question becomes whether this President has moved us forward or backwards when it comes to the racial divide in this country.
From the 1970's through the early 2000's, most white people could simply ignore the question of racism. There were times it came out of the woodwork and surprised us - like the reaction to the verdict in the O.J. Simpson trail and the Rodney King beating, verdict and riots. But the former was more of a curiosity and the latter didn't really affect our lives. If we were successfully able to segregate ourselves from the every day lives of black/brown people, we could reach the conclusion that the Civil Rights Movement had tackled that problem and it was time to move on. When it came to politics, that included both white conservatives and liberals.
Then we elected our first black president. The reaction to that has led someone like Ezra Klein to write about Obama Derangement Syndrome.
Obama Derangement Syndrome is different. It isn't so much paranoia about President Obama's policies as it is paranoia about the man himself — that he is, in some fundamental way, different, foreign, untrustworthy, even traitorous. What's odd is that it is attached to a president whose presidency has been, in almost every respect, conventionally liberal.You can almost hear the wheels turning in Klein's head asking, "WTH is going on here?!" He can only come to one conclusion.
But then, that's why Obama Derangement Syndrome is different than Bush Derangement Syndrome: it's not really about Obama's presidency. It's about Obama himself. It's about his blackness, his father's foreignness, his strange name, his radical pastor. Obama's presidency is in many ways ordinary, but the feelings it evokes are not. There is something about seeing Obama in the White House that deeply unsettles his critics. Obama Derangement Syndrome rationalizes those feelings.Now, I don't know that much about Klein's personal life other than that he's young, smart, liberal and wonky. So I don't want to make this all about him. But for the cohort he represents, it's obviously pretty difficult to continue to ignore the reality of racism in this country as we watch the reaction to this President.
And so I am reminded once again of what Derrick Jensen wrote in The Culture of Make Believe.
Several times I have commented that hatred felt long and deeply enough no longer feels like hatred, but more like tradition, economics, religion, what have you. It is when those traditions are challenged, when the entitlement is threatened, when the masks of religion, economics, and so on are pulled away that hate transforms from its more seemingly sophisticated, "normal," chronic state—where those exploited are looked down upon, or despised—to a more acute and obvious manifestation. Hate becomes more perceptible when it is no longer normalized.The presidency of Barack Obama has threatened the normalization of racism that allowed too many white people in this country to ignore it for the last 40 years. It's now out in the open and it's time for us to reckon with it. Aside from any other policies this President has implemented, that is the legacy he offers to us.
Another way to say all of this is that if the rhetoric of superiority works to maintain the entitlement, hatred and direct physical force remains underground. But when that rhetoric begins to fail, force and hatred waits in the wings, ready to explode.