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Stephanie Li Headshot

Obama, Still the Black Candidate

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AP
AP

The same day that the unemployment rate was reported to have fallen to 7.8 percent, Jack Welch called the job numbers "unbelievable," an assertion later supported by Steve Forbes and most recently by Donald Trump. Despite the fact that the Bureau of Labor Statistics has no political appointees and consists of professional analysts, the conspiracy theory became part of mainstream political discourse. What accounts for these baseless claims?

James Carville identified these criticisms as a form of "economic birtherism," and his link to the racist attacks which continue to plague Obama is especially instructive. Would a white president have his integrity called into question over job numbers that leading economists validate? Throughout his tenure, Obama has been subject to insults and attacks that are simply unimaginable for previous inhabitants of the Oval Office. In a 2009 joint session of Congress, Congressman Joe Wilson exclaimed "You lie!" while the president was speaking. Even Obama's subdued performance at last week's first presidential debate has to be understood in a racial context. The day before the debate, FOX News focused renewed attention on a 2007 video showing Obama praising his former pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr. and criticizing inadequate government services for those still suffering from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Despite covering the speech five years ago, Tucker Carlson newly denounced Obama's "appeals to racial solidarity" and his use of a "phony" black accent. With race suddenly in the spotlight, Obama could hardly risk coming off as an "angry black man," and attacking Romney for his falsifications and outright lies.

The day after the debate, Mitt Romney's national campaign co-chair John Sununu stated that Obama's debate performance demonstrated "how lazy and detached he is," adding, "when you're not that bright you can't get better prepared." Sununu's refusal to engage with the substance of Obama's debate remarks, his specific policy positions and plans for the future, demonstrate a pernicious tendency of the right to invoke racially charged language when criticizing the president. Moreover, Sununu's remarks highlight the double bind that traps Obama. If he's not an angry black man then he is a lazy, stupid one, a centuries-old stereotype that once justified chattel slavery.

Besides running against a newly energized and remarkably well-funded opponent, Obama has the added challenge in this election of still being the black candidate. Although his victory in 2008 inspired bold assertions that we are now living in a new, post-racial age, he continues to have to navigate the minefield of America's racialized landscape. It would be a mistake for Obama to identify the spurious attacks on the job numbers as racially motivated. Our black president cannot actually claim to be a black man, subject to racism, however neatly concealed or denied. Americans like the image of a black man in the White House because it quietly validates the dream that equal opportunity does exist and racism is no barrier to the highest office in the land. But what it means for a black president to govern amid racist unfounded attacks cannot be explored. We like our diversity displayed, not discussed.