Racism and President Obama, Essay Example

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Essay

Abstract

The historic election of Barack Obama was a joyous moment for many Americans, particularly African Americans, who never imagined that they would live to see a black man in the White House. Many commentators and pundits began to describe the new “post-racial” America, a society in which racial divisions had disappeared. Even during Obama’s campaign, however, there were warning signs that not only was this an unrealistic description of the American climate but that in fact his election had unleashed an ugly torrent of racism and extremism that persists into his second term. This paper discusses the notion of a post-racial America, presenting the thesis that bigotry in the United States is alive and well and is being demonstrated overtly and covertly through the ways in which this president is treated and regarded.

The election of President Barack Obama in 2008 was hailed as a historical event because it was the first time that an African-American had been elected to the office of the Presidency. The election has provided scholars with a unique opportunity to study the impact of race in contemporary American electoral politics (Shaffner, 2011.) Many Americans believed that this was the beginning of a “post-racial” era in the life of the nation, a time which would be characterized by tolerance and acceptance of all people, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or background. Although the election of President Obama was undoubtedly a large step forward in race relations, the idea that this represented an end to racism in the United States is completely false. In fact, his election, as well as his reelection has unleashed a torrent of ugly, racist behavior by individuals, organizations, and groups, who have focused their prejudice on the belief that Obama is a Muslim. Hatred of Muslims, despite the fact that President Obama is a Christian, has largely driven the irrational charges that the presidency is illegitimate. This paper will discuss the clear evidence that there is no post-racial environment in the United States following the election of President Obama, and that in reality, it has precipitated a resurgence of racism and prejudice that has existed but perhaps had been more covert in recent years.

Following the inauguration of President Obama, and a period during which he experienced significant popularity with a majority of Americans who had supported him; it became clear that a segment of the population was enraged by the results of the election. The Secret Service reported that there were an unprecedented number of death threats against the president, totaling more than 400 times the number of death threats experienced by his predecessor (Rayfield, 2009.) The agency decided to suspend its inquiries into financial crimes because of the large number of manpower necessary to investigate the massive amount of threats against the President. There were so many race-based threats against the president that he had to have a Secret Service detail 18 months earlier than any other presidential candidate.

Examining the results of the election in both 2008 and in 2012 makes it clear that the issue of race was a moderating factor when it came to white support for the president, particularly among conservatives (Shaffner, 2010.) During and after the Obama campaign, he was labeled a Communist, a Socialist, a traitor and a Muslim, all of which are extremely negative labels; placing the term “Muslim” in the same category with the other derogatory name calling was blatant evidence of Islamo-phobia. At some of John McCain’s campaign rallies, the crowd chanted “Kill him!” Many presidents have experienced extreme unpopularity, but calls for his death on such a large scale are unprecedented. What could possibly explain the hatred of Obama, as well is the disrespectful way that he has been treated? When during his State of the Union address, Congressman Joe Wilson interrupted him by yelling “You lie!” Wilson’s disgraceful behavior was not immediately and wholeheartedly disavowed by the Republican Party.

Another group of anti-Obama zealots has been the so-called “birthers”, right wing extremists who have been trying to delegitimize his presidency from the beginning by claiming that he could not rightfully be president because he was born in the United States. This fringe group has persisted in their claims, despite the release of the president’s birth certificate as well as his birth announcement printed in two different papers simultaneously. Although the birther movement initially appeared to be comprised of truly right wing “crazies,” other people who had formerly held some credibility have joined in the conspiracy theory, including Donald Trump. Recently, a country music singer named Hank Williams Junior proclaimed that the president is “a Muslim who hates farming, hates the military, hates the US, and we hate him.” Another musician, Ted Nugent, known for his right wing, gun obsessed views, had to be investigated by the Secret Service because of his strange statement that Obama’s reelection would “result in the singer being dead or in jail.”

A window into what could possibly account for the irrational hatred of Pres. Obama can be documented by the many cases of racist tweets made the public following the reelection, made by teenagers as well as adults, including a California woman who was fired from her job after posting racist tweets and assassination threats, including racial slurs. During the presidential primary, Republican candidates referred to the president as “the food stamp president;” during the campaign, Mitt Romney referred to the 47% of Obama supporters who don’t want to work, expect to be taken care of, and are seeking pay checks from the government. People have felt that they have licensed to put up racist signs in their neighborhoods and on the highways, signs, such as “I don’t support the n***** in the White House.” The racism that has been expressed throughout the Obama presidency has become increasingly overt, socially acceptable to a certain population that appears unable to tolerate the idea of a black man in the White House.

Accompanying the apparent racial hatred of the president has been an increase in religious discrimination against American Muslims. There has been evidence of a rise in anti-Muslim prejudice which followed the September 11 attacks, and for some people, has been coupled with hatred of the president, either because they believe that he is a Muslim or because they feel that he has been too accommodating and “apologetic” to the Muslim community in the United States and worldwide. This has occurred at the same time that the president and his administration have been trying to cultivate good relationships with American Muslims in order to both support them as well is to enlist their help in the fight against homegrown terrorists.

Those people who argue that the election of Barack Obama has indeed created racial harmony in a post-racial atmosphere feel that his reelection proved that serving one term had humanized him for the vast number of Americans, including those who had not supported him the first time around. His reelection, it is believed, demonstrated that an African-American does not necessarily need to be twice as good as a white person in order to succeed in the United States. After he has served for four years, with his approval rating hovering about 50% and his personal popularity ratings even higher, it appears that the electorate has been able to see beyond his skin color and support him in spite of the fact that he is simply a mortal, rather than a super human magical figure. President Obama introduced the notion of post-racial politics during his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, when he referred to the country being “not a black America, not an Asian-American, not a Latino America… but the United States of America” (Wise, 2010.) Overall, the concept of post-racial America is theoretical, and describes a country that is completely devoid of racial discrimination and prejudice. For some people, the election of Barack Obama is the proof that the nation has transformed into this place.

There is a great deal of concrete evidence indicating that not only is America not a post-racial society, but that the election of President Obama has revealed that for a subset of white people, race was a significant issue in their decision not to support him (Shaffner, 2010.). Studies have confirmed that for certain white Americans, race remains an important factor in American politics, even when the black candidate is ultimately the victor. The number of white people who voted for president Obama was lower because of his racial identity, compared to the projected vote margins for any Democratic nominee based on the national conditions at the time (recession, two wars, tremendous budget deficits, financial breakdown.) The fact that the state of the country was in such turmoil following the George W. Bush administration, and yet Obama did not receive the majority of white votes must be attributed to the racial factor.

The notion of a post-racial United States is a fallacy. This country has had centuries of affirmative action for white people which has created a tremendous wealth, coupled with stubborn inequities, along with almost every other economic and social parameter (Burnham, 2008.) Discrimination is still in active force, particularly in regards to employment and housing; nearly 70% of blacks said they had experienced at least one specific instance of racial discrimination, according to a New York Times poll. There are millions of Caucasians who do not have the resources needed to actively discriminate, yet are making daily decisions about where they want to live or not, where they want to send their children to school, and essentially preserving white privilege and space. In addition, the progress made regarding civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s have been attacked ever since, most recently demonstrated by the attempt at voter suppression in the presidential election when the Voting Rights Act was threatened. In the meantime, allegedly race-neutral policies, such as those pertaining to the social safety net in criminal justice system, continue to have a disproportionately negative impact on minorities, creating a wider racial divide (Burnham, 2008.)

Because of the historical nature of President Obama’s election, immediately after the election, many political pundits expressed their belief that the United States had indeed entered a post-racial era; however, a close look at exit polling from the 2008 election demonstrated that there was a very tangible racial polarization influencing voters’ preferences (Taylor, 2011.) Although Barack Obama won the election decisively, defeating John McCain by almost seven percentage points, McCain was able to win 55% of the white vote while Obama received only 43%. In addition, in 30/50 states, McCain defeated Obama among white voters (Taylor, 2011.) The weakness, Obama demonstrated with white voters was balanced out by his strength among people of color, carrying 95% of the black vote, 67% of the Hispanic vote and 62% of the Asian-American vote, all considerably higher numbers than those which John McCain received.

Although there continue to be many people who believe that the election of Barack Obama is evidence of a post-racial America, there is considerable evidence dating from his 2008 campaign, and persisting even after his reelection in 2012 that race continues to be an issue for many white Americans. This is demonstrated in many ways, including the extraordinarily high number of threats to his life that continue to plague the Secret Service, the lack of respect shown to him by politicians, citizens, and even Supreme Court justices, as when Justice Alito shook his head in disagreement when president Obama made a reference to the court in his State of the Union speech. Rather than the election of Obama indicating that this is a post-racial society, it has torn the scab off a long festering wound, that of racism in the United States, and has made it acceptable for a certain fringe element of the population to express these sentiments freely. Although President Obama is extremely popular and may be the first exposure to a black person by many Americans, it does not erase the fact that bigotry and extremism remains a threat to the stability of the country.

References

Burnham, L. (2008). A Black Scholar Readers’ Forum on President Obama. Black Scholar, 43-46.

Rayfield, J. (2009, October 19). New Report Finds Secret Service Overwhelmed by Increased Threats. Retrieved from Talking Points Memo: http://tpmlivewire.talkingpointsmemo.com/2009/10/new-report-find-secret-service-overwhelmed-by-increased-threats.php

Shaffner, B. F. (2011). Racial Salience and the Obama Vote. Political Psychology, 963-988.

Taylor, S. (2011). Racial Polymerization in the 2008 US Presidential Election. Western Journal of Black Studies, 118-127.

Wise, T. (2010). Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics. San Francisco: City Lights Books.

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