I have heard a number of false allegations leveled against President Barack Obama -- socialist, communist, illegal immigrant, terrorist sympathizer, etc. Iowa Congressman Steve King (R-Limbaugh/Coulter/Palin) took things to a new level when he said on G. Gordon Liddy's radio show that: "the President has demonstrated that he has a default mechanism in him that breaks down the side of race -- on the side that favors the black person." This charge, completely unsubstantiated by the factual record, would be laughable were it voiced by someone with no responsibility for national leadership. Coming from a member of Congress, however, it only contributes to the animus that some on the Right feel toward Obama. America's racial issues require serious words from serious people. Steve King is not among them.
Don't get me wrong: Presidents can be racists too. Even black ones. But to hurl that charge without legitimate evidence simply adds fuel to the fire that burns in some people who will believe anything about the President that confirms their own narrow view of him and the world. King just gave rhetorical nourishment to the Tea Party crowd and others who just can't accept the fact that a black man is President of the United States.
Indeed, to the extent that national reporting touches on Obama's personal security, we know that the life of this President is under threat moreso than any previous person to hold the office. Is it because he is left handed, a lawyer, or we are in a recession? No. We have had southpaw presidents, lawyer presidents, and recession presidents, so I'm going to go out on a limb here and say it's probably because he is black. CNN and the London Telegraph reported in August of 2009 that threats against Obama were up 400 percent from his predecessor, George Bush, who received about 3,000 per year. Even with that reality, the president has bent over backwards to overlook race.
I have been critical of him for his clear unwillingness to use his bully pulpit, one which no other person on the face of this earth has, to lead the country in a new direction on race. Silence on the prison-industrial complex which has destabilized black and brown communities around the country. Silence on the race-based exploitation of Africa. Silence on racism. Barely a peep on racial profiling. Indeed, he publicly scolded his Attorney General for having the temerity to say that America has been cowardly when it comes to race. Obama's plan has been to largely ignore race, as if a lead-by-example philosophy will fade this historic stain on the American quilt. I believe this the wrong approach. No systemic societal problem in all of recorded human history has gone away because it was simply ignored.
Meanwhile, King's comments reflect the conservative narrative on race in America: charge liberals with being racists to change the subject and hope the country does not examine the Right's record on race. There is no legitimate support for King's claim. But he lodged it anyway because, in America, race is one of the few topics that will get a rise out of people. As we look move closer toward the November elections, look for King and people of his ilk to amp up the rhetoric to drive their supporters to the polls. The result may be more people like King getting elected, restarting the cycle.
Michael K. Fauntroy is an associate professor of public policy at George Mason University and author of the book Republicans and the Black Vote. He blogs at: MichaelFauntroy.com.