The Obsolescence of a Slur

Criticisms of Obama are increasingly met by cries of “Racist!” Are his critics racists?

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

The charge of racism has been leveled against critics of President Obama’s healthcare reform by everyone from New York Times columnists, racial activists, and Democratic legislators to senior statesmen like Jimmy Carter (“It’s a racist attitude”), Bill Clinton (“some . . . are racially prejudiced”), and Walter Mondale (“I don’t want to pick a person [and] say, ‘He’s a racist,’ but I do think the way they’re piling on Obama . . . I think I see an edge in them that’s a little bit different”).

But are Obama’s critics really racists?

It is a serious charge. If true, it means the hope of a color-blind society is essentially over after a half-century of civil-rights progress. If false, it means that we have institutionalized vicious smears as legitimate political tactics — and, in the process, discredited the entire dialogue that surrounds racial prejudice.

How do we determine the accuracy of the “racism” charges?

1) Is the criticism of Barack Obama unusual by recent presidential standards?

No. Bush hatred was even more intense. Furthermore, it very soon went from fierce partisanship into a deviant desire for the president’s injury or death. Such derangement was tolerated or indeed enhanced by mainstream liberal establishment figures.

Alfred A. Knopf published a novel speculating about killing the president. The Toronto Film Festival gave a prize to a docudrama about an envisioned assassination of George W. Bush. His death became the stuff of a New York play, the dream of a Guardian columnist, and a common theme in the left-wing blogosphere.

A certain amount of this kind of venom was evident in the opposition to Bill Clinton, who was accused of everything from covering up murders to being a serial rapist. By any fair standard, nothing so far in the healthcare pushback has approached the smears and dirt directed at Presidents Bush and Clinton.

2) Is there a systematic racialist attack on other black politicians and leaders?

No. Gov. David Paterson of New York, for example, alleges a new racism as the chief cause of his own decline. But it is President Obama himself, not white racists, who is pressuring Paterson not to run for reelection.

Charles Rangel cited racism for much of the public outrage over his behavior. But clearly his problems were caused by his own tax fraud, inability to tell the truth, and violations of ethical standards — which would have destroyed most other politicians long ago. There may well be some racially motivated criticism of prominent at-risk black politicians, but so far there is no evidence that anything other than their own actions accounts for their political troubles.

3) Is President Obama’s agenda, or Obama himself, the problem?

Barack Obama could not have been elected without millions of white voters, coupled with a near-monolithic black base. To believe that innate racism has caused many of the millions who voted for him spontaneously to withdraw their support makes no sense.

Take moderates and independents who were once strong Obama supporters. Why would someone vote for a black man, then eight months later decide that he could not support a black man? Clearly, Obama’s problems derive not from his race, but from his radical agenda for out-of-sight government spending, high taxes, mega-deficits, nationalized healthcare, cap-and-trade, and an apologetic foreign policy.

In this regard, imagine two counterfactuals:

a) Had Obama delayed his liberal initiatives and first devoted his attention to controlling federal spending, winning in Afghanistan, and balancing the budget, would his polls have dropped to near 50 percent? (President Clinton’s own up-and-down experience between 1993 and 1996 is instructive here.)

b) Should Obama now escalate in Afghanistan, delay his liberal agenda, and balance the federal budget, would not more of his criticism come from the Left — and if so, would it then be considered racist? If a protester at an anti-war march carried a sign that read, “I love Afghanistan — Bomb Chicago!” would that be racist?

Indeed, Obama’s adherence to the Patriot Act, renditions, wiretaps, intercepts, tribunals, Predator attacks, and the Petraeus plan in Iraq — and his inability to close Guantanamo on his promised one-year date — have already incurred furor from the hard Left. But again, will that growing anger be termed racially motivated?

4) Has the Right recently been more racially conscious in its attacks than has the Left?

Not really. We forget that the left-wing blogosphere savaged Michael Steele in racialist terms when he was running for the Senate from Maryland. Harry Belafonte — to the silence of the Left — called Secretary of State Colin Powell a house slave. No one on the Left objected to the racist cartoons, both here in the United States and abroad in the Arab world, caricaturing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Much of the liberal hostility against Clarence Thomas suggested in thinly disguised terms that he was an unqualified beneficiary of affirmative action. The assumption is that the heartless Right is guilty of racism unless proven innocent, while the utopian, humanitarian Left could not possibly resort to racist attacks for partisan advantage. So far Barack Obama has seen less virulent opposition than what Alberto Gonzales, Condoleezza Rice, or Michael Steele faced.

5) Is racial polarization more pronounced among whites or among blacks? 

Here there seems no general trend of racial animosity by any particular group. The occasional over-the-top sign at a tea party, or right-wing minor official who crosses the line, seems balanced by prominent blacks who talk in racially oriented terms. Obama himself has stereotyped whites in Pennsylvania in quasi-racist terms, and has employed banalities like “typical white person.” The most prominent racist in the United States currently may well be the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the president’s own former pastor, who has insulted in racist fashion whites in general, Jews, Italians, and just about everyone other than African-Americans.

When Eric Holder called his fellow citizens “cowards,” his comments were understood to have been directed at white America’s unwillingness to discuss race on his terms. Green-jobs czar Van Jones promiscuously threw around the terms “whites” and “white people,” associating them with polluters and high-school mass murderers. Again, there seems no greater white propensity for using stereotypes. Bill Clinton, husband of the current Secretary of State, now points to a white propensity to play a racial card against President Obama; last year, Bill Clinton, husband of Obama rival Hillary Clinton, charged that candidate Obama himself had “played the race card” on him.

6) Are there trends in the general society that suggest a new racial polarization?

Again, not really. Recently a number of high-profile controversies may have had racial overtones, but they did not suggest a pre-existing climate of white racism. Had a white counterpart of Professor Gates insulted a black arresting police officer, made a pejorative reference to “your mama,” and then counted on his friendship with a white president for support, there might have followed charges of racism. Had a white country-and-western singer grabbed the microphone from a diminutive 18-year-old black gospel singer to announce to a national television audience that another white country-and-western singer was more deserving of the award, there could well have been charges of racism leveled. And had a marquee white tennis player lost her cool, charged a small Asian line judge, and threatened her person, there might well have been charges of racism. In all these and other lurid news stories splashed about on YouTube (cf. the bus attack by several black youths against a white passenger), there has not been much of a larger reaction along racial lines that suggests either that whites or blacks in general are racist, or that either group thinks the other is.

In short, there is little, if any, evidence that the millions of voters who are losing confidence in the president are doing so for racist reasons. But there is a great deal of evidence that his own extremist positions on spending, government, taxes, foreign policy, and healthcare, along with a few high-profile, out-of-the-mainstream appointments, have convinced many Americans that Obama, like the Bill Clinton of 1993, is not the moderate voice he appeared to be during the campaign, but a partisan ideologue racing to expand the government before his popular support collapses.

So why is the faux charge of “racist” so freely bandied about — given that polls suggest it is a losing tactic for liberals?

The most obvious reason is that a popular president believed he could enact an unpopular agenda on the basis of his own magnetic personality. When he discovered that he could not — and in the process revealed a pattern of partisanship and intolerance — some of his diehard supporters were flabbergasted by the turn of events and resorted in desperation to the “racist” charge to regain sympathy for both their cause and their president.

Second, liberals never envisioned that they would so quickly regain the House and Senate, as well as the presidency — partly through tough invective and a demonization of both George W. Bush and a Republican “culture of corruption.” Their noble ends were felt to justify their often over-the-top rhetoric. Now they most surely do not wish the same level of street invective legitimized and used against themselves. “Racist!” then serves as a preemptive firewall against possible conflagrations to come.

Third, there is an almost hysterical fear that “Racist!” has lost all currency as an effective political tool. Indeed, the charge has been rendered almost meaningless by the frequency of its use and the rarity of its accuracy. Counterintuitively, some believe the more the discredited charge is repeated, the more likely it might be to regain its prior effectiveness.

Thousands on the left, both black and white, have for decades invested in the notion of ubiquitous racism that must be addressed by either material or psychic reparations. At risk now with the discrediting of the charge are government-mandated quotas and affirmative action, and indeed the postmodern gospel that oppressed people of color could not, de facto, ever be racist themselves. If charges of racism no longer end the discussion, by sidetracking the accused into first proving his long record of racial tolerance, then the political atmospherics may well be altered.

Polls show that the public does not believe criticism of Obama to be racially motivated, and further that the majority has become exasperated at the tired charge. What we are seeing, then, in the latest hysterical resort to “Racist!” is a growing realization not only that this once-effective scapegoating has become obsolete, but that it has become a boomeranging liability for all who employ it.

©2009 Victor Davis Hanson

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