The haunting specter of racial politics

obama-01Today’s political climate is no more hostile than in other times in our nation’s history. As an American historian, I can think of several periods in the life of our country where politics had become toxic and contaminated nearly every aspect of the lives of the citizen.  What makes it different is that instead of the political divide being over the clashing viewpoints of domestic and foreign policy and the traditional Democrat versus Republican arguments that Americans have become accustomed to, a new political divide has been forged by the supporters of Mr. Obama: any critique of the President, his policies, or his actions can only be because he is a black president.  Choose any issue from foreign policy to domestic energy production and anyone that disagrees with President Obama’s agenda is immediately discredited as a racist that wants to see the president fail.

There is a danger when racial politics are so easily exploited by any political entity within American politics. One thing that American history can teach both Republican and Democratic Party leaders is that playing racial politics is a risky game that no party ever truly masters.  In the years immediately after the American Civil War, it appeared that the Republican Party had the vote of black Americans for perpetuity because of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.  The Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Ku Klux Klan Acts of 1870 and 1871, plus several other legislative acts seemed to add to the support that the Republican Party enjoyed across the nation and in the South.  From 1866 to the turn of the century, the Republican Party “waved the bloody shirt” reminding all which party had been the defenders of slavery and traitors to the Union.  And the politics of race worked – for a while.

It was not until after the 1930s and the introduction of several New Deal programs that the political tide began to turn for the Democratic Party.  By the time of the War on Poverty and the Johnson administration, the black American vote had almost completely left the Republican Party and was now firmly voting for Democratic candidates in local, state, and national elections, just as generations had voted for Republican candidates in the past.  Instead of owning up to its racially charged history of open hostility to black Americans, the Democratic Party leadership used the same tactics successfully employed by the Republican Party – open and frequent accusations of being a party entrenched with racism.  Now, since 1964, the Democratic Party has counted on votes of black America to retain its political edge, but at a very high price. To maintain itself as being seen as the party that is compassionate to the needs of black America, it now finds itself in a unique place – discrediting those black Americans that dare to disagree with the fundamental issues of the party.  In the end, the party that promotes itself as the “party of tolerance” becomes intolerant.

Since the election of 2008, the American mainstream media has carried numerous articles, editorials, and even panel discussions with loyal Obama supporters decrying that the only reason that a portion of the American population does not like the president is because of his race.  Even more stunning was a recent interview conducted by David Remnick, of the New Yorker Magazinewith President Obama.  During the interview, the president was on record stating:

“There’s no doubt that there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black President,” Obama said. “Now, the flip side of it is there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I’m a black President.”

Regardless of the political party affiliation of the president, he is the President of the United States of America.  The occupier of that office, regardless of their race, gender, sexual status, or political party is to be the leader of the American people, and as such, should diligently seek ways to unite all Americans behind national goals.  To dismiss opposition to any administration with a wave of a hand and conferring the title of “racist” to the opposition does not unite Americans for the common good, nor does it instill feelings of goodwill.  While I am sure that there are a few that description may fit, there are many more Americans that are critical of President Obama’s policies based on substance and concept rather than the racial identity of the president.  When the “racist” label is applied to those that are genuinely questioning the policies and agenda of the current administration all it does is to silence legitimate critique.

Continued on next page.

Alan Simmons

Alan Simmons is an adjunct instructor of history at Henderson Community College. He has been teaching at the college/university level since 2004. Within the scope of his degrees, his areas of emphasis are U.S. foreign policy, public policy history, political history, and U.S. history.

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