As Americans participate in the post-Thanksgiving rite of passage known as Black Friday, I can’t help but reflect on a disturbing trend that increases with each passing day of the Obama presidency: If you disagree with the president, you must be racist.
Of course, criticism of black Republicans by liberals of all colors is nothing new. When I first started on Capitol Hill in 1991 as a young legislative aide, it didn’t take long for Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) to call me a “sellout to my race” and tell me to my face that black Republicans are nothing more than “Uncle Toms.” The phenomenon is all too familiar to black conservatives who dare to express views that are out of the liberal mainstream.
But the Obama administration was supposed to change all that. The promise of “hope and change” was to have ushered in a new color-blind society for America’s first “post-racial” president. Like most Americans, I was proud that our country had elected its first African-American president, even if I didn’t agree with him politically. I had never thought such a milestone was possible in my lifetime, and I was willing to give the new administration the benefit of the doubt as it took the reins of power in Washington.
For me, the grace period lasted all of one month. Attorney General Eric Holder’s assertion that America was and is a “nation of cowards” struck me as remarkably discordant. How cowardly could we be if, by overwhelming numbers, we had just elected a black man to lead the most powerful nation on Earth?
As the country became more accustomed to Obama in the White House, he began to be viewed as the president who happened to be black rather than America’s black president—at least with conservatives, anyway. As people began to compare his words with his deeds, his approval ratings based on policy began to dip while his personal approval remained high.
After the Affordable Care Act was rammed through the Congress, something changed. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and other Great Society programs had enjoyed overwhelming bipartisan support. Obama’s health-care law was the first major entitlement program in American history passed without a single vote from the Republican Party.
Such a naked power grab roused many Americans from their political slumber and awakened them to the reality of what one political party controlling the levers of power in Washington might mean for themselves and their families. It helped give rise to the Tea Party, whose members felt the size and scope of the federal government had grown too large and that they were “Taxed Enough Already.”
But for supporters of the president and his agenda, the new insurgency could not be rooted in the finest of American traditions set forth during the American Revolution. Instead the opposition to the president had to be due to Obama’s skin color.
The midterm elections of 2010 swept 63 Republicans into office. The largest pickup of seats by one party since 1946 ended the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. Rather than acknowledge the American people’s unease about the size and scope of government, the president and his supporters doubled down on their political agenda. They chose to play the race card to demonize their political opponents rather than reach across the political aisle to work with Republicans and enact meaningful policies for the people they were elected to represent.
Today I am appalled that blaming genuine political opposition to Obama and his policies on racism has become the norm rather than the exception. It would be one thing if this sort of cheap political attack were limited to Chris Matthews and his colleagues at MSNBC, where charges of racism surface frequently. But in August, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) accused his Republican colleagues of obstructing the president’s agenda because of the color of Obama’s skin, the leader of the world’s greatest deliberative body revealed himself to be nothing more than a cheap racial huckster who will say or do anything to perpetuate a cynical untruth.
Are there racists in America? Yes. Are there racists in the Republican Party who oppose Obama? Most certainly. But citing racism as the cause for legitimate policy and political opposition by representatives elected by the people to serve in Washington does this country a great disservice.
In the short term, using the race card—which Obama implicitly endorses by not speaking out against it—will blunt some political opposition to the president and his scorched-earth, win-by-any-means-necessary approach. I’m more worried about the longer-term ramifications for the American body politic.
Fifty years ago this year, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shared his dream of a world in which people would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. He also warned against seeking “to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” With the country’s first black president in the Oval Office, that warning should no longer be necessary. Sadly, it’s needed today more than ever. How far we have progressed as a nation, yet how much have we have regressed, during Obama’s presidency on matters of race.