Although Bill De Blasio’s celebrated multi-racial family provided a plus in New York’s mayoralty election, the national story remains tinged with racism. Obviously, it’s intellectually reductive and absurd to explain away all opposition to Obama’s presidency as based on racism. Portions of the Republican base and many Republican politicos have an ideological antipathy to big government and budget deficits ("socialism"), where race is not a conscious factor.
Obama has also been criticized for his lack of personal touch with Congress and penchant for cool restraint, an example being the putdowns by the personality-obsessed, liberal New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd for his "passivity." Though these personal characteristics have political impact, they remain more matters of style and temperament than substance.
More importantly, Obama has committed the kind of egregious political blunders -- the computer glitches during the Obamacare roll-out, the too expensive premiums, and false promises that one’s existing health insurance could be kept -- that allow Republicans to call his competence into question. He has been forced into a defensive position and has handed Republicans raw meat, which they won’t stop gnawing on until they achieve their goal of winning back the Senate in 2014.
Other Obama policies that have been open to justifiable criticism, like drone strikes on civilians, and secret NSA surveillance, carry much less moral weight with the mass of Americans than abortion or gay marriage. In fact, most of the opposition to Obama’s lack of transparency in these areas has come from liberal groups like the ACLU and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. But these are issues that only a small portion of the public perceives as having any immediate effect on their lives, and these policies don’t cost Obama significant political capital, nor do they roil most Republican legislators and their base.
The issues that are significant to them are Medicaid, food stamps, and unemployment insurance -- the social safety net -- where race, though usually hidden in relatively translucent code words, is always lurking in the background. The New York Times’ Paul Krugman has written that much of the opposition to the social safety net has little to do with deficits: "If you read transcripts from Rush Limbaugh or other right-wing talk radio hosts, there’s not much about fiscal responsibility, but there’s a lot about how ‘the government is rewarding the lazy and undeserving.’ "
Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg said that recent focus groups among core Republican voters highlighted anxiety that "big government is meant to create rights and dependency and electoral support from mostly minorities who will reward the Democratic Party with their votes." This is the emphasis of the tea partiers, who see Obamacare as part of a socialist plot to make minorities dependent, when the truth is that the largest percentage of the uninsured is white.
This hostility towards the poor has culminated in 26 states rejecting Medicaid expansion. They are the very states where 68 percent of the nation’s poor, uninsured blacks and single mothers live. According to Krugman: "Bear in mind that the federal government would pay for this expansion, and that the money thus spent would benefit hospitals and the local economy as well as the direct recipients." But a majority of Republican state governments are willing to forgo the fiscal benefits of Medicaid expansion, as long as the poor aren’t helped. It is a punitive act that will hurt the most vulnerable, many of them black.
Race had become less a part of the public dialogue in the mid-’90s, when both parties feared raising the issue would hurt their political chances. And when Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress overhauled welfare, it helped mute the race issue for a time. However, race returned with Obama’s 2008 election, despite his consciously avoiding proposing legislation that serves black-Americans, and almost always choosing to talk in color-blind terms. He clearly has said little directly about race, but his mere existence as a black president has aroused an outsized anger among a portion of the electorate. One blatant example took place when Obama gave a speech in Phoenix where some protesters sang "Bye-Bye Black Bird," and another raised a sign saying, "Impeach the Half-White Muslim!"
Still, that kind of crude, vituperative racism is less heard or seen in public these days. If accusations are leveled at politicos for racist statements, quick denials or apologies are in order. But racism continues to play a role in the unequal treatment of drug offenses according to race.
Federal laws punishing the use of crack cocaine affect blacks 100 times more severely than the use of cocaine powder, which is used predominantly by whites. And it is a powerful element along with crass political self-interest in moving Republican state legislatures, spuriously claiming voter fraud, to advance restrictive voting rights legislation.
Yes, the old forms of Jim Crow are gone, there is no KKK, the networks and cable stations are filled with African-American anchors and pundits, and Obama has been elected president for two terms. But racism lingers on.
Leonard Quart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.