Tuesday, February 24, 2015

President Obama's Impact on Racism

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.

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.
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.


  1. I say that even though his presidency has brought this hatred out into the open, it is still moving things forward, not backward. Exposing the institutionalized hatred is a good thing. It lances the boil. Once the putrid liquid finally drains, we can begin to heal. Unfortunately, it will take a very long time to accomplish. I do believe we are headed in the right direction.

  2. "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..."

    third sentence is not evidence for the first/second. e.g., forcing acknowledgement of what was ALREADY there but ignored/denied also adequately explains the phenomenon.

  3. Yes the racists can not stand that a black man is President of their white United States.

  4. the name, the mixed parentage, the early life in a foreign country (Hawaii), the education (sorry Gov.Walker) the widespread acceptance resulting his 2008 victory. All of these factors, when added to the skin color, shook a wide swath of our citizenry our of their racial closet and made them easy pickin's for the Palin's, Limbaugh's, Giuliani's and other's who would exploit race for political gain or fame. I'd hate to think this will be Obama's legacy.

    1. I don't think it can be dealt with until its out of the closet.

  5. Just to be clear: racism against this President exists on both the Right AND the Left.

    1. ^^You're right. Democrats in Congress more willing to support a foreign leader [Bibi] over their own President is a great example of this. The disrespect from the Left towards Obama is going to really hinder them in the long term future.

  6. I expected President Obama to face racism. To be honest, I really didn't expect THIS much. However, considering that over 45% of people voted for McCain/Palin in 2008 should have put everyone on notice. To want PALIN over President Obama was simply astounding. These people would rather have an idiot a heartbeat away from the the presidency than an brilliant, honest and good man who happens to be black.

    So yes, the racists are out of the closet - at least a lot of them. BTW, I saw a really good documentary on Independent Lens about a psychological test given to individuals via a computer program and how racism is embedded in our subconscious. Even white doctors prescribed medicine differently when shown faces of African Americans verses whites. Fascinating stuff.

    1. You can take that test online. It also shows that police officers are like to identify an object as a gun when it is seen following a picture of a black man. The test shows we all have these impulses to see someone who looks different as a threat, but it also shows that people can be trained to decrease these reactions. To me it;s now whether we'll have these thoughts and impulses, because we will, but what we do with them when we have them. Having the thought is not the same as acting on it. If we examine it and name it for what it is, then I think we can eventually change it.

  7. Will February 24, 2015 at 1:54 PM

    "Just to be clear: racism against this President exists on both the Right AND the Left."

    ^^You're right on the money. The Dems in Congress showing more support for a foreign leader [Bibi] than their own President is a great example of this. The blatant disrespect towards Obama is disgusting & will the hurt the Party's relationship with minorities.


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