On January 20, 2009 I stood in the middle of the National Mall as the first African American president took the oath of office. I looked around at the millions of people of varying ethnicities and thought perhaps things had changed in America. Clearly I was in the moment and soaking up too much of the "hope and change." As a historian whose research focuses on African American history I obviously should have known better and it did not take long for me to come to my senses. Within a week racism towards Obama and indeed anyone nonwhite began to increase dramatically.
Of course, this began before Obama was elected. Many credit Senator John McCain with refusing to personally attack Obama and for calling out supporters who used racist language. However, it was McCain who gave us Sarah Palin who never misses a chance to use terms like "lackadaisical," and "shucking and jiving" when discussing the president.
Palin was not alone. Since Obama's inauguration, various politicians have put their racism on full display. From those like Rep. Steve King who never disappoint in spewing vile comments about the Latino community to former Los Alamitos mayor Dean Grose sending postcards with watermelons growing in front of the White House, there has been no shortage of overt racism in politics in the last six years.
Increasingly, politicians do not even bother to use coded language since they feel they have cover from conservative talk radio, Fox News, and the entertainment industry. Ted Nugent, Phil Robertson, Gene Simmons are a few who have made clear their hatred for anything nonwhite. Would Clint Eastwood have ever talked to an empty chair if the president was white? Moreover, we have seen plenty of pictures from fraternity and sorority parties with white college students thinking it is perfectly acceptable to wear blackface.
Indeed, according the Southern Poverty Law Center, since Obama's election, the number of "Patriot" groups and militias has risen 813 percent. A number of reports suggest that Obama has faced the most death threats of any president in U.S. history. But to suggest race has anything to do with these statistics means you are playing the "race card" and not dealing in reality. Pay no attention to Cliven Bundy. He is the exception.
I would be remiss to write a piece about the rise in overt racism without mentioning the Tea Party. Again, the worst thing you can do to someone who identifies with the Tea Party is to call him or her racist. However, I suggest attending a Tea Party rally, if you can find one anymore, and take a look at the signs. I am not sure what Obama caricatured to look like a chimpanzee or a sign reading "Hang in there Obama" with a noose has to do with economic populism or small government.
The reality is that many whites, like those mentioned, despise a changing America that has an African American family in the White House, the first Latina Supreme Court Justice, and a younger generation that is less racist. They know they will soon be the minority. And we know what can happen when this type of hatred is ginned up. There racism has gone from incendiary language to preventing voting; from mass incarceration to outright murder.
But there is another side. We continue throughout this decade to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement. And just as the murder of Emmett Till in 1955 galvanized a generation, so too did the death of Trayvon Martin. Today, the Dream Defenders and other organizations have picked up where SCLC, SNCC, and CORE left off. Now with Ferguson, the rise in anger, energy, and passion for justice has reached new heights.
Slaves who suffered and died for centuries never thought African Americans would receive the right to vote. Those who were beaten and jailed in Selma and Birmingham never thought an African American would be elected president. Like those who came before them, many today who are fighting from Florida to Ferguson are feeling frustrated, scared, angered, and unsure about the future and their own lives. But they must realize the time has come for a "Third Reconstruction." The Black Freedom Movement began at the "Door of No Return" and continues today no matter how many racist cops, citizens, politicians, or media try to stop it. Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown will not simply be footnotes in history. They will be the names we look back on as those who united a new generation to sacrifice, endure, and fight for justice and equality and create a new Civil Rights Movement.
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