Are those who strongly oppose President Obama racists? President Carter and Maureen Dowd think so. But President Clinton and even Mr. Obama himself don't seem to agree. Who is correct?
Two questions should guide us in finding our answer. First, how do we tell who is and who is not a racist? Second, what is the causal connection between racism and Strong Opposition To President Obama's Policies (SOTPOP)?
1. Who is a racist?
The biggest hindrance to identifying racists in America is the nearly universal suppression of racism in public. Since openly expressing racism immediately entails being ostracized, very few people are willing to do it, which means that racists quickly learn to talk like non-racists. Thus, evidence of racism is hard to acquire and often fairly thin, sometimes so thin that no amount of squinting will reveal it.
For example, Maureen Dowd recently became convinced Rep. Joe Wilson was a racist because he rudely shouted, "You lie!" during the president's health care address to Congress. Such words do not normally indicate racism. Tens of millions of people have called President Bush a liar, and few, if any, of them are racists. But Obama is black, Wilson is white, and racism is heavily closeted in America. So perhaps Dowd is just a better detective than others. Let's look further.
Consider language Mr. Wilson might have used to more clearly identify his views. If he were openly racist, for instance, he might have said, "You lie, you dirty Negro!" But if he were a true egalitarian who yet believed himself to have been lied to, the most likely thing he would have said was, "You lie!" By contrast with the open racist, Mr. Wilson clearly doesn't sound racist at all. And in contrast with the non-racist …well, there isn't any contrast, is there? In other words, the evidentiary difference between what Rep. Wilson actually said and what a non-racist who felt lied to would have said is zero. Nevertheless, this non-evidence is offered as indicating his racism.
All this begs the question of how Mr. Wilson could have expressed his frustration without running the risk of being called a racist by the likes of Ms. Dowd. Perhaps a real egalitarian who felt lied to by the president would have said, "You lie, you beautiful black genius!" Ironically, I suspect this too would have been taken for racism, which indicates there is no safe language for a white Congressman to use when claiming a black president lies. I'm not at all defending Mr. Wilson's disrespectful outburst. I'm just saying that it strikes me as particularly weak evidence of racism.
2. Is racism the root of opposition to Obama?
But even if Ms. Dowd is a bit over-zealous in her racism super-sleuthing, perhaps President Carter is still right that the "overwhelming portion" of SOTPOP is still inspired by racism. In considering how to validate this claim, we find ourselves hindered yet again by the severe difficulty of separating political opposition rooted in racism from the sort that is not.
Clearly, strong animosity is possible even in the absence of racism. Again, observe President Bush's treatment by the left during his term. Further, even when Clarence Thomas was being castigated by whites on the left, I think we were all willing to agree that this was not racism in action, simply strong political disagreement (taken too far). Since we have no trouble imagining liberals being so furious without being racists, it should be possible to imagine opponents of Obama being equally furious without racism.
But we needn't speculate. Everyone knows that people on the right have expressed opposition to white liberal politicians every bit as vociferously as they have toward Mr. Obama. I'm sure that Secretary Clinton, the late Senator Kennedy and Vice President Gore would all be eager to dispel the allegation that conservatives are uniquely antipathetic towards our president.
And even if there is racism among some or even many who express SOTPOP, the right question is whether they would be any friendlier to a white president who pursued his same agenda. No less a commentator on race issues than President Clinton himself has answered this, saying, "I believe that 100 percent of those who are opposing him now would be against him if he were a white Democrat."
And that's really the point. Are there any people in America who would be for Barack Obama if he were white but who are against him now because he is black? In what can only be labeled a tremendous bit of irony, for this to be true would require that the supposedly racist conservative backlash against him isn't coming from conservatives at all. Conservatives are already disposed to SOTPOP on purely ideological grounds. If racism is creating opponents to Obama, it can only be creating them among white moderates and white liberals who would gladly follow a white president along Obama's path, but just can't stand it happening under a black man. Perhaps it's just my lack of imagination, but I have some trouble believing the Tea Party protestors are secretly liberal racists temporarily cavorting with conservatives out of racial animosity toward a black president of their own ideological stripe.
I wonder whether it's even plausible for racism to overwhelm political opinions. If this train of reasoning is true and there are liberal racists who now oppose Obama because he's black, are there also conservative racists who would oppose a black Republican? The conservatives I know are quite fond of Clarence Thomas, J.C. Watts, Walter Williams, Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice. Yet if any of those people became president, I shudder to imagine the opposition they would draw. Still, I doubt anyone would say it was rooted in racism. Perhaps it's only because we've been so conditioned to think that liberals are incapable of racism whereas conservatives are incapable of escaping it. But with all the deep animosity people on the left have toward anyone on the right based entirely on ideology, why is it so incomprehensible that people of equally strong conviction on the right would react vehemently to a liberal president who just happened to be black?
Under slightly more careful analysis, then, things seem fairly simple. Identifying racists is difficult at best, and strong political opposition seems to be completely unconnected to the presence of racism. So maybe the best way for us all to proceed is to treat "racist" and "racism" as words which themselves have no place in civilized political discourse anymore.
And what should we do with those angry white protestors who are expressing anything but fondness for our first black president? I say we celebrate them, even if we don't agree with them.
See, America won't be racially healed until we're willing to accept a world in which whites sometimes disagree with blacks for reasons completely unrelated to race and in which this disagreement isn't misdiagnosed as racism. The right to be hated—or at least strongly opposed—for reasons other than skin color, as weird as it sounds, might just be the key test of a truly equal society. We've finally elected a black man president. The question remains whether we'll truly fulfill this amazing accomplishment by allowing Americans—especially white Americans—to openly and fearlessly oppose him without being called racists.
Andrew Tallman is the host of The Andrew Tallman Show and a columnist. Andrew's show is heard daily on KPXQ in Phoenix. Contact him at [email protected].