Mike Littwin: We’re having the race conversation
December 18, 2014
If you believe the polls, or watch cable TV news, you may be halfway convinced that race relations in America have somehow grown worse during the tenure of the first black president.
But if that seems counterintuitive, that’s because, well, it is. It’s counterintuitive and it’s wrong.
Yes, people are marching in the streets. Yes, NBA stars are wearing “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts. Yes, Bill O’Reilly puts the blame on Barack Obama for facilitating what he calls the racial “grievance industry.” Yes, riots broke out in Ferguson after Darren Wilson was not indicted in the shooting death of Michael Brown. Yes, police met the demonstrators with equipment made to kill terrorists. Yes, yes, and yes.
But what we’re actually having — six years into the Obama presidency — is the conversation that Eric Holder controversially told us all those years ago we were afraid to have. Maybe we were right to have been afraid. The conversation is often ugly, but what else would you expect?
From the day Obama took office, this is what we knew about race relations in America: There’s a black man in the White House and, depending on your vantage point, he’s either too much concerned with race in America or he’s too unwilling to publicly confront the issues of race in America. In either case, he was supposed to represent a dramatic change. His election in 2008 did just that. His re-election did it again.
But if the elections were historic, history moves only so quickly. And the idea of the coming post-racial America was always naive. The grand jury decisions — the ones that could find no one responsible for the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner — just reminded us of all that unresolved history. What the killings showed, more than anything else, was how differently police operate in black communities. We knew that, of course, but now we know that. And if we were reminded of the unemployment numbers and the prison numbers, it seems not everyone wanted to be reminded.
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And so you get 53 percent of Americans telling Bloomberg pollsters that race relations have gotten worse under Obama. The numbers, for once, were similar for those black and white, whereas almost every other question on race shows a wide racial divide.
Of course it’s all divisive. But, despite everything, the conversation — OK, the argument — has to be a good thing. There’s movement. Some would even say there’s a movement.
In the sixth year of a presidency, the talk becomes of legacy. Part of Obama’s will be the deepening of the already-deep political divide. The rise of the tea party moved Republicans further to the right. And Republicans routinely claimed that Obama, when he wasn’t hiding his birth certificate, was simultaneously pulling Democrats radically to the left. (He actually wasn’t, but for the sake of the argument, it doesn’t matter; it only matters that some people think so.)
But I don’t think that racism, as some argue, is at the root of this divide. I tend to think it’s more about the use of race as a way to exploit the divide that began with Clinton and moved on to Bush and then on to Obama, in much the way that we have moved from talk radio to cable TV news and to the Internet. With the next president, we will inevitably move onto a different dividing point.
What was different was that when Obama became president, suddenly everything was game. And so Rush Limbaugh could get away with playing “Barack the Magic Negro” on his show and Glenn Beck could get away with calling Obama a “racist” on his show and Newt Gingrich could get away with saying you can understand Obama “only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior.”
Finally, a GOP congressional staffer went too far and ripped the Obama daughters for being teenagers, saying they looked as if they were dressed for a night at a bar. She resigned or, more likely, was resigned. Young black females, as Eugene Robinson pointed out, should get to be young black females. We have seen too vividly what can happen to young black males, and how they can turn into a “demon” in a cop’s eyes and wind up dead. Or they can look like a hoodied thug and wind up dead.
Obama has always been uneasy publicly discussing race. He remembers what happened with Henry Louis Gates and the beer summit and what happened when he said he could have had a son who looked like Trayvon Martin. He understands all too painfully how the divide works. He knows, too, that as the first black president, there is only so much he has to say.
When Obama finally went on BET to say that racism is “deeply rooted” in America, he also said, "As painful as these incidents are, we can't equate what is happening now to what was happening 50 years ago," he said. "And if you talk to your parents, grandparents, uncles, they'll tell you that things are better — not good, in some cases, but better."
Yes. And no.
As Obama almost said, they’re better and they’re not nearly good enough. And when Denver high school students are peacefully marching in protest of that very point, it’s hard to see how anyone could miss the fact that they are marching forward.