Ever since Joe Wilson’s outburst of “you lie!” during President Obama’s speech to the joint session of Congress, various people have been weighing in on what it meant and more broadly, what the virulent protests against his plans for universal health care may mean.
Former President Jimmy Carter’s statements that much of this opposition, including Joe Wilson’s outburst, is fueled by racism, has ignited a discussion of the “elephant in the room” – that on top of being a tax-and-spend liberal in the eyes of the right wing, President Obama is a black man. Never mind that he is half white, if his skin color isn’t light, he’s considered black by a large portion of the population and as such, is subject to suspicion.
Maureen Dowd, in a recent op-ed piece, also raised this issue.
"I tended to agree with some Obama advisers that Democratic presidents typically have provoked a frothing response from paranoids — from Father Coughlin against F.D.R. to Joe McCarthy against Truman to the John Birchers against J.F.K. and the vast right-wing conspiracy against Bill Clinton.
But Wilson’s shocking disrespect for the office of the president — no Democrat ever shouted “liar” at W. when he was hawking a fake case for war in Iraq — convinced me: Some people just can’t believe a black man is president and will never accept it."
David Brooks, in a recent op-ed column, doesn't think opposition to Obama is about race. He talked about the role of populism in American politics: the innate enmity between the idea of a strong central government, led by an educated elite, and a decentralized, state-led government led by "the people." Jefferson personified the latter. He was inherently suspicious of government and didn’t like the idea of giving too much power to any central government. Hamilton, on the other hand, was a strong proponent of a central government.
"This populist tendency continued through the centuries. Sometimes it took right-wing forms, sometimes left-wing ones. Sometimes it was agrarian. Sometimes it was more union-oriented. Often it was extreme, conspiratorial and rude.
The populist tendency has always used the same sort of rhetoric: for the ordinary people and against the fat cats and the educated class; for the small towns and against the financial centers."
These factions have been warring ever since, taking various forms throughout history, from Father Coughlin and other opponents of FDR’s New Deal, to those who fought Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society reforms.
Brooks pointed out how the white protesters were mingling with black people on the Mall in Washington last weekend so obviously they couldn’t be racists. Of course, we all know that is meaningless; many people can have subtle racist feelings and still say "some of their best friends are black," as the old saying goes.
However, the words on the signs we are seeing at the health care town halls and at the September 12 march on Washington are very telling. (This one is from a New Hampshire town hall meeting).Another favorite is "I want my country back." What is this supposed to mean? Back from whom? The Democrats? Or is it from that black man who somehow got elected President? And if they’re really so worried about losing their country, where were these people when George W. Bush was taking more and more federal power and wiretapping their internet and phone connections?
My feeling is they didn’t care or notice as much because despite being descended from a long line of East Coast rich elites from Connecticut, George W. Bush, with his ordinary name, broad Texas accent and everyday way of speaking, sounded like “one of them.”
Barack Obama, with his exotic name and background, his ability to sound intelligent and educated when he speaks, and yes, his dark skin, does not seem like "one of them," despite the fact he came from much more humble beginnings than Bush.
This perception of him as "the other" has to have an effect on their level of anger and yes, fear. And part of that fear has to be that he is an African-American. He’s not the same color as they are. You don’t see black faces at these protests. The continual claims that Obama is a Muslim, that he wasn’t born in this country despite all the evidence that he was, are evidence of this. When people protested against FDR, LBJ or Clinton, this aspect was not part of the conversation.
There is also the fact that death threats against this President are 400% higher than for the previous president.
Does David Brooks really think that this would be the case if President Obama were white? And would people really be bringing guns to town halls if he were white? I’m not sure that they would.
Some of the people at these protests would deny emphatically that they are racist. They would vehemently assert, as Joe Wilson’s son did about his father that they "don’t have a racist bone" in their bodies. But racism is not always overt, even to those who harbor the feeling. It can be subconscious, it can be a result of cultural background, of things they heard when they were young and forgot about. It’s easy to subvert a racist feeling into a policy disagreement.
But to me the proof is the level of anger out there is way out of proportion to the issue at hand – health care. I mean, come on. We’re talking about a system to take care of people’s health. And Obama isn't even proposing a particularly radical change in our health care policies - no universal single-payer health plan in sight. This is not something that should inspire such fear and hatred. No, there has to be something more to it. And that something has to do with racism.
Of course, Democrats and supporters of Barack Obama aren’t allowed to say this. "Oh, they’re playing the race card," Obama’s opponents say if the suggestion is made that some of the opposition has to do with the color of his skin. "As soon as someone disagrees with him you call them a racist." (Of course they ignore the fact that George W. Bush's proponents immediately accused anyone who disagreed with them of not being patriotic!)
And President Obama knows this; he has been making the rounds on talk shows to support his universal health care plan, but of course has been asked about Jimmy Carter’s statements on racism. He has tried to defuse the importance of this issue in order not to add fuel to the fire.
But he knows it’s true. And so do we. To pretend that racism is not part of the opposition we are seeing out there is naïve at best and dangerous at worst.
Time will tell what President Obama will accomplish. Like most presidents he will probably be remembered for some important successes and some obvious failures. And that is how he should be remembered, and not for his race.
But we also must give him credit for the courage it took to run for President and become the first African-American President of the United States. He had to know there would be many who would oppose him simply for his race, and that he would be putting himself and his family in danger. But someone had to be first. And he has taken that step and that chance.
The vicious hate groups and right wing fringe that oppose him, and would oppose any African-American president, are a small segment of the overall population. But that doesn’t mean the racism does not exist in those who are most filled with hate and thus the most dangerous.
The vast majority of the country really doesn’t care whether Obama is black or white and does just agree or disagree with his policies. As time goes on, more and more of the country will be like them, and the idea of an African-American man (or woman) being president will be second nature and no longer an issue.
But it took one man, Barack Obama, to take the chance to be first. Let’s hope the Secret Service can keep him safe for his entire Presidency.