A Question of Racism
What’s behind the vitriol in the opposition to Obama?
The First Black President
A series exploring the cultural impact of Obama’s White House
The words cut through the air as President Obama, not eight months into his first term, laid out his signature health care proposal in a prime-time speech to a joint session of Congress.
The outburst by South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson, challenging the president’s factual assertion that the health care law would not extend coverage to illegal immigrants, drew audible gasps in the room and withering stares from Obama as well as Vice President Joe Biden and then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who were sitting behind the president on the rostrum.
It’s unprecedented for a president addressing Congress to be heckled like a referee at a summer league basketball game. Not surprisingly, the incident still rankles Obama supporters, including some of his closest confidants.
“Somebody should have smacked his a–,” former Attorney General Eric Holder said of Wilson in an interview. “They should have . . . told him to sit the f— down.”
Wilson apologized and was formally rebuked by Congress. Still, for many the incident stands as a prime example of how the unwritten rules dictating public respect for the nation’s chief executive and his family have shifted for the worse since the nation’s first black president took office. Instances of obstruction, scorn and outright insult have mounted over his seven-year tenure.
“There is a unique feeling of fear — hatred is too strong a word — but a feeling of anger, dissatisfaction with this president,” Holder said.
All of which raises a disturbing question: Is racism to blame?
The continuous challenges to the president’s legitimacy and authority offer a troubling counterpoint to the shimmering achievement his election and re-election represent for a nation founded on both the dream of equality and the reality of white supremacy. They evoke a shameful history, when whites routinely addressed blacks by their first names and adult men were called “boy” and otherwise diminished without a second thought, no matter their age or standing.
Any one or two or three of the slights to Obama could be dismissed as insignificant one-offs, the last gasps of a dying order that relegated people of color to a lesser place.
But the barbs come regularly, from national figures and local nobodies alike. Some have an unmistakably racial cast. For instance, Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican nominee for vice president, used a Facebook post to demand that the president stop his “shuck and jive shtick” in explaining the terrorist siege of the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. The decidedly rotund Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin), who has served in Congress for nearly four decades, sent a written apology to the White House after being outed for criticizing first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative by cracking, “Look at her big butt.” Then there are political minnows such as Robert Copeland, a police commissioner in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, who called the president the N-word in an email to colleagues. A public outcry forced him to resign, but even then, he refused to take back the epithet.
“I have a level of respect I expect of people in public office, which applies to me, and this man in the White House does not measure up,” Copeland told a reporter. “When that occurs, I do upon occasion use slang expressions to refer to them.”
Beyond racial insults, there also have been instances of startling rudeness, such as when then-Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer wagged her finger at the president in view of the press corps as the two were embroiled in a heated discussion on an airport tarmac.
Other times, the president’s political opponents ignored longstanding protocol. Freshman Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) wrote a letter to Iranian leaders attempting to undermine the nuclear deal the president struck with the regime in Tehran. The move was supported by most Senate Republicans and sidestepped two centuries of precedent that said members of Congress do not insert themselves into international negotiations. Republicans also breached long-established norms when they invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to deliver a speech to a joint session of Congress without informing the White House.
Wilson said his outburst was spontaneous and Brewer insisted she meant no disrespect to the president. Cotton and other Republicans say they felt obligated to try to block a nuclear deal they believe compromises national security. Still, one is left to wonder whether a white president would have gotten the same treatment.
Presidents are ridiculed all the time, of course. Vietnam War protesters chanted, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” But even the most dovish of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s political opponents in Congress maintained decorum in his presence. President Bill Clinton was impeached and then acquitted on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice for lying to a grand jury about his affair with a White House intern. Clinton was widely mocked and condemned for his lasciviousness, but not in person. The Senate’s top Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada called Republican President George W. Bush a “loser” and a “liar.” Others called the 43rd president a war criminal and an idiot. But, again, the insults were not said to his face.
With Obama, it has been different. Despite nearly two full terms as president, significant slices of the American public do not trust the basic facts of his biography. Nearly one in three thinks he is a Muslim, even though he has repeatedly attested to his Christian faith. Many think Obama is a foreigner, a particularly insidious lie because if it were true he would not be eligible to be president. That falsehood became such a distraction that Obama was forced into making his long-form birth certificate public in hopes of squashing it. (Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee in 2008, didn’t have to do the same thing, although he, like Obama, was born outside the continental United States.)
The birther myth did not flourish without political support. Prominent Americans, including the presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, helped nurture it, and at least a dozen state legislatures considered measures requiring the president to provide proof of citizenship before placing his name on the 2012 ballot.
One exception: When angry crowds questioned Obama’s legitimacy in the closing weeks of the 2008 campaign, McCain stood up to it. In a memorable moment, McCain took the microphone from a woman who called Obama an “Arab” to make clear that was a lie and that his own differences with Obama were solely over policy. Nevertheless, a CNN poll last fall found 1 in 5 Americans continues to believe the president is not American-born. That is an extraordinary number of people to question the legitimacy of a twice-elected president. Would that even be conceivable if the Constitution did not once count slaves as three-fifths a person? Or if slavery, the Black Codes, or Jim Crow did not restrict basic rights for African-Americans under the guise that we were not full citizens?
Evaluating the evidence
Many black members of Congress see the baseless skepticism toward the president and the many slights he has endured as two sides of the same coin.
G.K. Butterfield, a North Carolina Democrat who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, spent much of his career evaluating evidence as a lawyer, a judge, and a state Supreme Court justice. Looking at what Obama has faced, he thinks there is ample reason to conclude that the president has been treated differently because he is black.
“I understand how government works and I know the deference traditionally given to the president that you do not see now,” Butterfield said. “You put all of these incidents together — questioning his citizenship, the Muslim stuff, the idea that he has been infected with anti-colonialist views by a father he barely knew — and you have a strong circumstantial case. It certainly smells like racism.”
Butterfield said black members of Congress sometimes talk among themselves about their suspicion that part of the opposition to the president is rooted in racism. When they raise it with Obama, he mostly shrugs it off, although he leaves them with the idea that if “he was any other president, some of these things would not happen,” Butterfield said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat first elected to the U.S. House in 1996, agreed that Obama has faced more determined opposition than any of his recent predecessors. “It is hard to tease out what is race and what is legitimate opposition,” Cummings said. “I am absolutely certain they disagree with him on political ideology. But when you put it all together, I am convinced that at least some of their opposition is based on race. I’m not one to wave the flag of racism, but what else could it be?”
Former President Jimmy Carter has repeatedly said that much of the vitriol directed at Obama is rooted in racism. Carter told Emory University students in 2009 that protesters who called Obama a reincarnation of Adolf Hitler or likened the president to an animal have “been influenced to a major degree by a belief that [Obama] should not be president because he is African-American.” In May, he told the New York Times that the animosity toward Obama had “a heavy racial overtone.”
Obama’s campaign strategists fretted about the impact racism would have on their candidate from the start. Once he started polling well in 2008, they worried whether the apparent support would vanish once voters were in the privacy of the voting booth. “That was always the big unknown of the campaign,” said Ben LaBolt, who was the deputy communications staffer during Obama’s first presidential campaign.
There was reason for concern. Even as Obama’s message of hope and change developed into a national movement that drew massive crowds, his campaign volunteers were encountering instances of racial hostility. Doors were slammed in their faces and racial slurs were uttered by people who could not stomach the idea of a black president. The high volume of threats against Obama prompted the Secret Service to assign protection to him almost nine months before the first primary ballots were cast, the earliest point at which a presidential candidate had been assigned a security detail. The threats spiked as Obama moved closer to victory and in the early months of his presidency, officials confirmed. Eventually, the number of threats retreated to previous levels, although the first family remained a target.
In late 2011, a 21-year-old man suffering from delusions pulled up in his car south of the White House, pointed a semiautomatic rifle at the president’s home and opened fire. The president and Michelle Obama were out of the country, but their youngest daughter, Sasha, was there with her grandmother, Marian Robinson, and their oldest daughter, Malia, was due home shortly.
No one was hurt and, initially, the Secret Service was not sure what had happened. Four days later, agents figured out that the White House had been hit by seven bullets after a housekeeper discovered broken glass and other debris on the Truman Balcony of the presidential residence. Even then, Michelle Obama only learned about the incident from a White House usher, leaving her and the president furious. The first lady, according to The Washington Post, could be heard through a closed door as she raised her voice during a subsequent meeting with the director of the Secret Service.
Gauging racial resentment
In the end, the threats and racist attitudes proved to be in the minority as Obama won big — twice. But even amid his historic victories, there were hints of racial division. Across rural Appalachia, for instance, many counties that for decades had gone Democratic turned Republican for no discernible reason other than Obama’s race. Crunching survey data, a team led by Stanford University researcher Josh Pasek concluded that Obama lost about 5 percentage points of the vote in 2008 because he is black.
Four years in office did not make more people any more comfortable with the idea of a black president. In 2012, Pasek, who had moved to the University of Michigan, collaborated with other researchers and found that Obama’s first term coincided with a small but statistically significant increase in anti-black views, as measured by responses to questions meant to gauge racial resentment. The researchers found that the portion of the electorate that held “explicit anti-black attitudes” rose from 47.6 in 2008 to 50.9 in 2012 (although some of them voted for Obama anyway). That translated into lower approval ratings for the president, as well as a smaller margin of victory, the paper concluded.
In the 2012 Democratic primary, voters in some rural parts of the South and Appalachia chose clearly unqualified candidates — or nobody — over the sitting president. Most of Kentucky’s 120 counties went against him in the Democratic primary, often choosing “uncommitted.” In Arkansas, Obama beat a little-known white lawyer by just 58 to 42 percent. In West Virginia, a convicted white felon serving time in a federal prison also managed to get 42 percent of the vote against Obama, carrying 10 of the state’s 55 counties. Historians called that kind of performance by clearly unqualified candidates against a sitting president unheard of. The most plausible explanation: Voters opposed Obama because he is black.
Orin Kramer, a New York hedge fund manager and Obama fundraiser, said the president is disliked by many Wall Street moguls, even though they have made as much money as ever since he has been in office. Like some of the black members of Congress, he suspects there is a racial component, but said it was unquantifiable because most people do not talk about racial bias. Nor do they often perceive it in themselves. “When people feel alienation, they come up with socially acceptable ways to describe that alienation,” he said. “They don’t tend to want to talk about race.”
Wall Street has long been criticized for its lack of diversity. Despite lawsuits and years of outside advocacy, the financial services industry remains overwhelmingly white and male.
Asked about the racial component to the opposition, the White House press office had no comment.
And at least publicly, none of it seems to rattle Obama, who manages to project both racial optimism and realism. On one hand, he notes the obvious: Racism is alive. At the same time, he has come to believe that “prejudices are far more loosely held than they once were,” he wrote in The Audacity of Hope. One of the biggest hurdles facing African-Americans is “the feeling that as a group we have no store of goodwill in America’s accounts, that as individuals we must prove ourselves anew each day, that we will rarely get the benefit of the doubt and will have little margin for error.”
Some African-Americans are frustrated that Obama has not done more to put his critics in their place, or talked more forcefully about racial disparities. That critique causes Holder, his former attorney general, to shake his head in disagreement.
Holder sued states over voting rights restrictions, investigated police departments for excessive force, and moved on sentencing reform. Just weeks after taking office in 2009, he gave a Black History Month speech in which he called the United States “a nation of cowards” for its refusal to confront its racial past as well as continuing racial challenges. For all our progress, Holder said, most Americans are uncomfortable talking about the legacy of our racial history — particularly in mixed racial company.
Some critics suggested that Holder was doing what Obama should have.
“People have often said that ‘Holder, he talks about race,’ ” the former attorney general said. “Well, guess what? I was his attorney general.”
If Holder gets credit for that, he said, Obama should, too. “He shares my worldview. He is 10 years younger than me. I am from New York. He is from Hawaii,” he said. “But the reality is that we are two black men who are aware of who they are, proud of their heritage, proud of their people.”
Holder added that Obama’s natural inclination is to be cool, even under fire. “I think he understands that he is subject to a special kind of scrutiny, a special kind of anger,” he said. “But there is a Zen component to him that allows him to hear this stuff, process it in the right way, put it in the right compartment, and focus on the stuff that at the end of the day is more important.”
Ron Kirk, who served as U.S. trade representative under Obama and two decades ago was the first black mayor of Dallas, said the president’s reaction to his most extreme critics is best understood by thinking of Jackie Robinson’s posture when he integrated Major League Baseball.
“What made Jackie Robinson special was his temperament,” Kirk said. “He could not strike back in anger. What so infuriates the president’s opponents is that the more they ratchet up the insults, the calmer he gets.”
In a late April speech to graduates of Jackson State University, Michelle Obama ticked off a list of insults endured by her husband: Charges that he doesn’t love his country, the “liar” accusation in front of a joint session of Congress, the nonstop questions about his birth certificate and his belief in God.
“We would be kidding ourselves if we didn’t acknowledge that those age-old issues that have always roiled our country – the problems a lot of folks would just rather brush under the rug – those challenges are still with us today,” she said. “We can’t deny it.”
Yet, she added, the question is not whether those issues still exist, but how you respond to them. Do you get angry? Do you turn inward in despair?
“Or are you going to take a deep breath, straighten your shoulders, lift up your head, and do what Barack Obama has always done – as he says, ‘When they go low, I go high,’ ” she said to applause. “That’s the choice Barack and I have made. That’s what has kept us sane over the years.”
From the start
Obama’s 2009 inauguration drew nearly 2 million people, possibly the largest crowd ever to assemble in Washington. The festive throng stretched along the National Mall, a place once dotted with slave pens, to witness the first black president being sworn into office. It was a special moment in the nation’s history, but Obama would not have long to bask in it.
As the nation celebrated and the first couple made the rounds of inaugural balls, a group of powerful Republicans were looking for ways to limit the new president’s impact. Over dinner that same night at the Caucus Room restaurant about a mile from the White House, more than a dozen people — including powerful congressmen Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Kevin McCarthy of California, as well as then-senators Jim DeMint of South Carolina, John Ensign of Nevada and Jon Kyl of Arizona — started planning how to undercut the new president.
They said they could not attack the president personally — they thought he was too popular — but promised that they would obstruct his initiatives. The strategy crystalized in the public mind nearly two years later — well before the next presidential campaign would even begin — when Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate’s top Republican, said he planned to see to it that Obama was a one-term president. McConnell did add that if Obama did a Clintonian backflip, “it’s not inappropriate for us to do business with him … I don’t want the president to fail, I want him to change.”
On one level, that strategy seems unremarkable in polarized Washington. But it is also true that the Republican Party is disproportionately a party of white men, while most of the nation’s growing minority population identifies with the Democrats. It is little wonder then that many Obama supporters saw the vehemence of the Republicans’ across-the-board opposition as an updated version of massive resistance, a term with an ugly history.
It was first coined in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board decision after more than 100 members of Congress called on local officials across the South to defy the court’s order to desegregate public schools.
More than a half-century later, with Obama in the White House, there is a new form of massive resistance. Republicans opposed his economic stimulus package even as the nation was amid a devastating recession. They bitterly fought his health care ideas, in part with false claims that “death panels” were part of the legislation.
It also meant blocking appointments, even for posts vital to running the country. Nobel laureate Peter Diamond withdrew his nomination to the Federal Reserve after Republicans blocked his nomination for more than a year. At the time, two of the seven seats on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors were unfilled, among about a dozen other top economic, financial policymaking and regulatory jobs that were either vacant or filled by temporary appointees. Republicans also forced a government shutdown in 2013 and repeated rounds of financial brinksmanship over the once-routine task of raising the nation’s debt ceiling, putting the nation’s credit rating at risk.
With opponents going to such seemingly self-destructive, even loopy, extremes, it is natural to ask if there was more there than differences over government policy.
And as the Obama presidency enters its final months, any hope for bipartisan comity is so far-fetched that the president deployed it as a punch line.
“In just six short months, I will be officially a lame duck, which means Congress now will flat-out reject my authority,” Obama joked at the White House Correspondents Association dinner in April. “And Republican leaders won’t take my phone calls. And this is going to take some getting used to, it’s really going to — it’s a curveball. I don’t know what to do with it.”
No refuge in moderation
One reason the GOP’s trench warfare prompts suspicion of baser motivations is that the president campaigned as a moderate and, by many measures, has governed as one, too. Liberals were frustrated by Obama’s support of the Wall Street bailouts, for instance. They objected to his refusal to push for a single-payer health care system, in favor of a plan based on Republican Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts reform plan. They felt betrayed by his apparent willingness to consider cuts in Social Security and Medicare to address the nation’s long-term debt. They were appalled by his continued prosecution of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, his heavy use of drone attacks on suspected terrorists, and his refusal to push a policy agenda explicitly aimed at the problems faced by African-Americans.
Moderation has long been a central part of Obama’s makeup. Kenneth Mack, a Harvard Law School classmate of Obama’s who now teaches at his alma mater, said that one of Obama’s most striking talents in law school was his ability to reframe difficult issues in ways that allowed people to hear one another, even as they had significant differences.
When Obama was elected president of the Harvard Law Review, the publication was ideologically divided and political conflicts often turned personal, a situation that Obama defused. “He wasn’t so much a compromiser, as he was someone who could help people find some commonality when they disagreed,” Mack said.
He carried that into his political career. The first presidential campaign talked up Obama’s reputation for reaching across the aisle when he served as a state senator in Illinois. His regular attendance at poker games that included both Democrats and Republicans in the state capital of Springfield was made well known to national political reporters, as was his reputation for building relationships with lawmakers from rural and suburban parts of the state.
Illinois state Sen. Terry Link, a Democrat from the exurbs north of Chicago, said the image of Obama was more than a campaign creation. “When he was down here, he even got a little backlash from some of his Chicago colleagues who did not think he was ‘black enough,’ ” Link said. “He was the kind of guy who was able to transcend. He knew how to speak to everybody.”
Of course, Illinois politics is not national politics. Illinois Republicans are not generally as conservative as their Southern compatriots. And partisanship has grown much sharper since the 1990s. Yet, the question remains: Why was Obama unable to find common ground with his political adversaries as president?
The Republican response
Some Republicans acknowledge that a fringe element has espoused racist ideas about Obama, which they condemn. But they say their problems with Obama have to do with the president’s policies and what they call his aloof style.
“There is some real hatred of President Obama out there that has been unhealthy. That is irrational, but that is not why we are where we are now,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
He said many Republicans have profound policy differences with the president, and they were made worse by Obama’s refusal to engage with them. Graham said the president should have worked harder to earn Republican buy-in on his early initiatives, even though Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress when he took office. “We would make proposals, and never hear anything back from them,” Graham said. “It just seems like we could never get over the goal line.”
Former U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, formerly the second-ranking Republican in the House, makes a similar argument. He said that he has always taken on the birthers and others who sought to delegitimize Obama as an outsider. Cantor, who is Jewish, said he felt it was his responsibility, given his faith’s own history of persecution.
Still, he said, the impasse with the White House was caused by honest policy differences. Before the president took office, Cantor and other Republican leaders met with transition officials about the stimulus plan. They took Obama at his word that he was eager to work with Republicans, and they were hoping the new president would incorporate many of their ideas. But Cantor said they were brushed aside by Obama, whose team had its own thoughts about how best to fix the economy. By the time the president officially proposed his economic recovery plan, the Republican leadership announced unified opposition to it.
“He told us ‘elections have consequences,’ ” Cantor said of the president. “We recognized the historic nature of his presidency and we wanted to work with him. But things got off to a really, really rough start and never recovered. It is really a missed opportunity.”
Former Mississippi governor and Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour said other presidents, including Reagan and Clinton, figured out ways to work with hostile Congresses and pass major legislation. As he sees it, Obama operates too far above the fray. He said the president meets with Republican leaders too infrequently and when he does, he is often too prickly.
“Obama on more than one occasion has taken meetings with Republicans to criticize them in public,” Barbour said. “He doesn’t try to build a relationship. It is like he’s bored with it. It’s like he’s above it. I don’t want to act like Republicans haven’t been adversarial with him on issues they care about. But they were that way with Clinton. And the Democrats were that way with Reagan.”
It is also true that modern politics is less genteel than it has been in many decades. After Wilson was condemned for interrupting Obama’s health care address, Hank Scott, co-owner of Collum’s Lumber Products in South Carolina, gave $5,000 to Wilson’s campaign. In all, Wilson raised $2.7 million in the three-month period surrounding his outburst, far surpassing his previous totals.
Even so, Scott called Wilson’s spleen-venting “a non-event.” If Obama has been disrespected, it is because of a regrettable coarsening of civic discourse that has affected the entire country, Scott said, not because he is black. Plus, he said, going back through history “people forget there were near gun fights in Congress. This is just the way the game is played.”
Legacies of the past
One of Obama’s favorite phrases is borrowed from Martin Luther King Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” That is not wrong. There is no George Wallace blocking the doors of the University of Alabama to keep it all white. There is no Lester Maddox claiming the right to refuse to serve black customers in his restaurant, a stance that propelled him to the governor’s mansion. It has been well over a century since President Theodore Roosevelt scandalized the nation by inviting Booker T. Washington, the most prominent black leader of the day, to dine with him and his family at the White House. That one meal and all it implied about social equality, ignited weeks of angry newspaper coverage and death threats against Washington.
But the legacy of the bad old days lives on: in wealth disparities, educational disparities, in disparate treatment by law enforcement, and disparate incarceration rates. It lives on in segregated lives that often leave blacks and whites experiencing different realities. Researchers have found that employers are far more likely to call back people who send resumes with stereotypically white names such as Emily than those with black-sounding names such as Lakisha. Another study found that a white applicant who just got out of jail is as likely to get an entry-level job as a black applicant with no criminal record.
Can it be that even the leader of the free world is vulnerable to that kind of bias because he is black?
Being a racial pioneer is something Obama rarely talks about. More often he describes himself as someone whose pragmatic approach and diverse experiences leave him positioned to heal the nation’s divides, partisan and otherwise. But if his presidency proves anything, it is that being black complicates that already difficult task.
Perry Wallace called that Obama’s unique burden. In 1966, Wallace joined the freshman basketball team at Vanderbilt University, becoming the first African-American to play in the Southeastern Conference. He said he frequently thinks about his own experience as he watches Obama’s travails.
And there are plenty of parallels. Sports and politics are both played by highly competitive people, their public battles prompting both outsized passion and criticism. For racial pioneers, the scrutiny is particularly intense, as people critique their every move and they struggle under the pressure of upholding not only their own expectations and dignity, but also those of a school, a city, an entire people.
Then, as now, breaking the color barrier came at a price. Wallace, now a law professor at American University, endured taunts and death threats. He remembers people calling him a “jigaboo, a coon, a n—–.”
Remaining calm in the face of all that was difficult, Wallace said. Yet, he never reacted to the fans, and he went out of his way not to be too aggressive on the court, even though he played hard. Obama operates in an entirely different arena and faces obstacles that are more subtle, but Wallace said the challenge is fundamentally no different.
“In many ways, the racial quotient in America is still amazingly low, even with all our progress,” Wallace said. “Obama is in a supertricky situation, and he has handled it with immense skill.”
Perhaps Obama’s greatest skill has been to remain undeterred by the haters. Some have disrespected him and tried to delegitimize him. Others worked to undercut his policies, for reasons valid or not. But Obama never conveys a sense of bitterness and he always seems to see beyond his critics. After all, he is a two-term president of the United States. Enough said.