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Baker

Is Obama Facing Racism?

Hunter Baker, Associate Dean of Arts & Science
Oct 1, 2010

Barack Obama achieved more than simply becoming the first African-American president back in 2008. He riveted the nation with his speeches and the tenor of his campaign. When he took office, even many who strongly opposed him wished him well as he enjoyed massive approval ratings in the wake of his inauguration.

Today, less than two years later, the situation is quite different. Barack Obama no longer seems like a superhuman political figure. His approval ratings are nearing George W. Bush territory. He has passed much of his legislative agenda, but has expended gigantic amounts of political capital and goodwill in the process.

It is in this new period that we hear the charge of racism. The idea is that large numbers of American citizens have joined in fierce resistance to the president's agenda, not because they are worried about the financial health of the country, or have objections to big government, or fear the loss of unique features of American government relative to other nations (notably European ones), but instead because they are racists.

There are problems with this point of view. First of all, it is hard to explain the mass defections of independents from the Democratic party on the basis of their racism. They were strongly with Obama and his party in the previous two election cycles. Now, they have changed their minds. Were they enlightened before, but now have taken a racist turn?

Second, does racism really make sense as an explanation when the simple operation of politics explains things more easily? It is axiomatic that larger numbers of people buy into dreams, while fewer stay on the bus for implementations. The details destroy consensus. That has occurred as the president's broad promises have taken legislative form.

The bigger problem beneath this entire matter of alleging racism is the trouble with ideology. We make sense of a complex world through the use of simplifying agents like political parties and ideologies. We don't like to hear that someone else thinks our solutions and ideas aren't everything we think they are.

The tendency, too often, is to assume that those who disagree with us are bad people with bad motives. If we do that, then we can simply discount their opinions. I would suggest that this is why so many are claiming racism is the source of opposition to the president's policies. It is easier to do that than to grant the possibility some of the criticisms might have merit or at least deserve respectful consideration.

Finally, civility is at risk. To call someone a racist is a deep, deep insult. Racism is irrational. Racism is destructive. Racism is hateful. Unless one has extraordinarily good evidence of such a thing, racism ought not be lightly or easily alleged. The better course is to avoid trying to find reasons to prove the opposition is wicked or insane and to focus more properly on mounting the best substantive argument your side can marshal.

This op-ed originally ran in the Oct. 1 edition of The Jackson Sun