When President Obama was first elected, we had several folks in the pundit class gleefully proclaiming this the end of racism in America. I wasn't naive enough to take that bait, but I did hope it would at least signal a shift in the tone and tenor of the rhetoric we use in engaging with people who differ from us. Maybe I was just kidding myself.
It's been four-and-a-half years now since candidate Obama delivered the "More Perfect Union" speech in Philadelphia (in response to the first Jeremiah Wright flap), which masterfully thread the needle of animus and understanding in a way that was instructive, emotive, and real, but in the time since, we've seen a further coarsening in how our differences are addressed -- if they're addressed at all.
We saw it when Rush Limbaugh berated Gen. Colin Powell for his endorsement of Obama over McCain, saying it was purely motivated by race. We saw it in the late Andrew Breitbart's attack against government worker Shirley Sherrod (and her subsequent, erroneous firing by the Obama admin) over her perceived reverse-racism -- which turned out to be anything but.
We've seen it in the constant, unending trickle of "birtherism" proclaiming Obama's secret Kenyan birthright despite the issue being settled. Heck, we've even seen it in the rise of the Tea Party movement, and the Republican party's subsuming a big chunk of people motivated just as much by resentment at a black man being the president as anything else.
Welfare. Food stamps. Lazy. These are terms that have been regularly tossed out by electioneering politicos like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum on the stump, fully aware of how they mean very different things to different audiences. The end result is a GOP so brazenly contemptuous of minority issues that the electorate hasn't been this racially polarized since the 1960s. Is it any great shock then when we see polls like this?
In a lengthy new piece for The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates dives into the cauldron of racial animus that's only gotten hotter since President Obama was elected, despite his seemingly-concerted effort to steer clear of race issues during his presidency. Here's a particularly cogent highlight:
Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others. Black America ever lives under that skeptical eye. Hence the old admonishments to be "twice as good." ... The election of an African American to our highest political office was alleged to demonstrate a triumph of integration. But when President Obama addressed the tragedy of Trayvon Martin, he demonstrated integration's great limitation -- that acceptance depends not just on being twice as good but on being half as black.
Racism is alive and well. Let no one tell you otherwise. But the way forward to meaningfully addressing and overcoming that reality is neither to see racism's tendrils in every interaction, nor bending over backwards to say it doesn't exist anymore. It relies on navigating a middle path that's become increasingly hard to reach and harder to navigate as our intercultural engagement has overheated and begun to boil over.
As the election cycle enters its nastiest stretch, a stream of long-held stereotypes is being manifested as a cynical tool to turn the screw on racial resentments and drive up vote tallies, irrespective of the long-term cultural damage. It's up to all of us to be better than that.