11/17/2014 02:52 pm ET Updated Jan 17, 2015

Race, Religion and the Search for Equality in a Post-Obama America

The worst part of the racist backlash to Obama's presidency isn't seen in comments such as these, made on Fox News' web site recently. The breakdown of any race- or gender-driven barrier intensifies bigotry, so a certain amount of vestigial racism was to be expected with the election of an African-American to the highest office in the land. Far worse is how quickly the certain right-wing zealots, and their equally racist compatriots in the media, succeeded in mainstreaming Obama's "otherness."

By incessantly attacking his birthplace and religion, the right made it commonplace to cast doubt on Obama's motives as those of an outsider who doesn't have America's best interest at heart. So quickly was this done that benign inspirational words from his victory speech -- before he had even been sworn in -- were used to brand Obama has anti-America. Suddenly, the duly elected president of the United States was nothing more than another angry black man with a chip on his shoulder. It didn't have to be this way.

As recently as the 2008 campaign, when a right-wing radio host repeatedly used Obama's middle name to disparage him, John McCain did the until-then-expected thing of any credible presidential candidate. He spoke up in defense of his opponent and said this:

Whatever suggestion was made that was in any way disparaging to the integrity, character [or] honesty of either Sen. Obama or Sen. Clinton was wrong, and I condemn it. I absolutely repudiate such comments, and again, I will take responsibility. It will never happen again.

But, once the lynching began, it was both unstoppable and effective. By the 2012 campaign, GOP candidates were openly embracing the "outsider" attacks, rather than condemning its racist roots.

Said Mitt Romney: I don't think we've seen in the history of this country the kind of attack on religious conscience, religious freedom, religious intolerance that we've seen under Barack Obama.

And Rick Santorum said: We see a president who is systematically trying to crush the traditional Judeo-Christian principles in this country.

The efficacy of such branding is of course racial animus. How else could it be that the same actions proposed by previous presidents are vilified when suggested by Obama? The idea of potential amnesty for some undocumented immigrants that was first championed by Ronald Reagan is called an "impeachable offense" when proposed by Obama. These patently racist attacks boiled to the absurd with the right-wing's pre-election freak-out over Ebola, during which it was suggested that in fact Obama wants Ebola in the US, because we owe it to Africa to be equal to them. Because, after all, he is African, right?

The purpose and impact of the "otherness" attacks reaches far beyond Obama. It mainstreams the validity of questioning anyone who is "other" than what right-wing hero Sarah Palin has called "real Americans." It is how Bill Maher can go on a rant about Islam, largely without consequence. And how Reza Aslan faces bigoted attacks, not just on Fox News, but on CNN as well. Tragically, the more common these attacks become between politicians and public figures, the more likely this bigotry is to spill over into everyday American life.

Last week, the Montgomery School Board, when faced with the choice of either adding Muslim holidays to the school's calendar or removing all religious holidays, chose the latter in a 7 to 1 vote. In a stunning act of bigotry harkening back to the pre-civil rights era, a school district that had long openly published and celebrated Christian (and Jewish) holidays, chose to strip all holidays to avoid exposing their students to Islamic holidays.

America is a country founded on the separation of church and state. The founding fathers went great lengths not only assure this separation, but to insist that this country isn't founded on Christianity, in any way.

Said John Adams: The Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.

Thomas Jefferson added: Christianity neither is, nor ever was part of the common law.

Yet, 238 years later, the proximate consequence of the bigotry toward Obama is that Muslim students, and their families, are being treated as second-class citizens in a manner that is antithetical to everything America stands for.

The most insidious part of this "socially acceptable" bigotry is what comes next... blaming the victims. Articles such as this one, which blame Obama for worsening race relations since his election, say, in effect, "Obama was elected to improve race relations, but things didn't get better, so it would be better if he just wasn't elected in the first place." Sounds a lot like saying it would be best if the "uppity" black man just stayed where he should.

This blame game came full circle in the school board case quickly. Bill O'Reilly, as if on cue, ran a segment blaming the Muslims for wanting their holidays on the school calendar in the first place.

Said O'Reilly: "They Just Wiped Out All Our Traditions Because [Of] These People"

The use of the words "they," "our" and "these" in this quote are case in point of the bigotry that the right has mainstreamed since Obama's election. Those words are divisive and designed to pit "real Americans" against everyone else. Based on our founding principles, aren't we all "our"? As Muslims, aren't those students "our"? As a Hindu, am I not "our"? Is a gay person not "our"?

The election of President Obama proved that a majority of Americans have moved past this country's tortured legacy of racial inequality. The efficacy and widespread embrace of the increased bigotry since Obama's election is a sad and urgent reminder that equality has a long way to go in this great country. A vocal minority is clinging tightly to their race-, gender- or religiously-driven hate instead of embracing an increasingly diverse, dynamic and open society that is a true reflection of the dreams of our fathers.