Gil Troy: Playing the Race Card Makes for Ugly Politics

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University and visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, is the author of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents and The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.]

Barack Obama's election to the presidency was supposed to usher in a new, more mature era of race relations, but it could not evoke nirvana. There's a growing chorus complaining that this summer's hostility to his stimulus package, to his health-care reform and to Mr. Obama himself is racist.

“I think it's based on racism. There is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president,” former president Jimmy Carter said, clearly forgetting the euphoria when Americans elected a black president.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd said she heard “an unspoken word in the air” when Republican Representative Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” during the President's speech to Congress last week: “You lie, boy!” She also located Mr. Obama “at the center of a period of racial turbulence sparked by his ascension.” In fact, Mr. Obama is at the center of a political storm sparked by his leadership – as all presidents have been.

American politics is a contact sport. The long, rich tradition of American centrism does not negate the equally long colorful tradition of American mudslinging and partisanship. It is unfair and itself divisive to impute racial motives to Mr. Obama's opponents without evidence. The shrill opposition reflects the high stakes surrounding the current debate, Americans' enduring ambivalence about big government and the ugly way modern politics plays out in the media, within the blogosphere and on the streets.

Mr. Obama is controversial because he is seeking big changes. He's no Bill Clinton in his second-term incarnation, focusing on minor policy “Band-Aids” such as the “V-chip” and school uniforms. Mr. Obama wants to be a transformational president like Ronald Reagan. During the transition, faced with the unexpected economic crisis, Mr. Obama read books about how Franklin Roosevelt re-engineered the U.S. economy. Headlines celebrating “Franklin Delano Obama” launched Mr. Obama's ambitious first hundred days. Spending nearly a trillion dollars to stimulate the economy, taking over the U.S. auto industry, and now trying to solve the perennial health-care riddle – while protecting America and seeking world peace – are sweeping goals. No wonder there's pushback.

The conservative counterattack is particularly intense because Mr. Obama seems to forget that Americans have mixed feelings about big government. There's a strong individualistic streak in American thought. Every major jump in the government's mandate has encountered fierce resistance. Conservatives denounced FDR as a Mussolini and even a Hitleresque dictator.

In 1993, Hillary Clinton was shocked at the vitriol directed her way when she led health-care reform efforts. The Clintons, in fact, endured far more abuse than Mr. Obama has – so far. The Clintons were accused of drug-running, murder, faked suicides, financial corruption, rape and cover-ups galore. After his impeachment, Mr. Clinton lamented Republicans' descent into the “politics of personal destruction.”

Mr. Clinton and his fellow Democrats suggested these attacks were a conservative Republican tic. The implication then – as now – was that liberals disagreed as rational, reasonable human beings; conservatives were harsh, hysterical, character assassins.

Unfortunately, the loony left can be as vicious as the ranting right. In the 1980s, Mr. Carter and the Democrats called Mr. Reagan a war-mongering racist who would deprive blacks of civil rights while bumbling into nuclear war. One of the Democratic Party's grand old men, Clark Clifford, called Mr. Reagan “an amiable dunce.” Respected liberal writer Garry Wills called him “Mr. Magoo.”

George W. Bush endured even more vicious attacks. Mr. Carter himself was one of many Democrats who said America's leaders lied in the buildup to the Iraq war. During the 2004 campaign, an Internet ad compared Mr. Bush to Hitler. Bushophobia became so intense that critics often seemed more disgusted by Mr. Bush than by Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden. “There is something profoundly wrong when opposition to the war in Iraq seems to inspire greater passion than opposition to Islamist extremism,” Senator Joe Lieberman, [then] a Democrat, said in 2007.

Vice President Richard Cheney was even more hated, and routinely compared to Darth Vader. Much of this enmity stems from the ever-accelerating news cycle, the blogosphere's nastiness and Americans' ability to speak, text and listen only to those with whom they agree.

Mr. Obama promised to lower the volume – acknowledging how shrill politics was under Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush, two white presidents. Obama supporters should not be shocked that Republicans are attacking Mr. Obama as vehemently as Democrats attacked his predecessor.

And it is dishonest for Mr. Carter, Ms. Dowd and others to play the race card, implying that anyone who dares disagree with Mr. Obama's health-care plan or stimulus package is a redneck. American politics needs a different tone – these delusional, demagogic, racial recriminations only make things worse.

Read entire article at Globe and Mail

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Daniel Horowitz Garcia - 10/2/2009

I believe as long as one views race as biological, one will have a hard time making sense of the politics. Whiteness is a political category, so it doesn't matter about Nordic or Scottish. The political category of whiteness did not develop in China. The Han are the dominating ethnic group, and although I have not studied this much at all I wouldn't be surprised to find out that Han also functions more as a political category than an ethnic or biological one. So, to have a "conversation" about biology when there is no biology involves seems silly. To pretend that politics is not involved in a political discussion also seems silly.

Bill Heuisler - 9/25/2009

Mr. White,
Your words are not only tedious, but uninformed. You admonish HNN readers,
"One need only do a google search" and then you descend into blatant fabrication that shows you don't google before you blurt.
For instance:
1)Barack the magic negro was coined on March 19th, 2007 in an opinion piece by David Ehrenstein in the LA Times. Ehrenstein is African American.
2)You are apparently ignorant of the racial incidents involving Black Panthers at polling places, slashing of Republican HQ tires by Dem. African American workers and twenty-plus indictments of ACORN in at least a dozen states for intimidation.
3)Your citation of the so-called racism of, "numerous elected officials with R's by their names" ignores the often elected President of the Democrat Senate who recruited for the KKK and casually uses the N-word in TV interviews.

Google the above. Learn before you preach.

Bill Heuisler

Maarja Krusten - 9/25/2009

Two recent articles focus or touch on the divisive nature of the Internet. Former Bush White House official Michael Gerson addresses Internet discourse in a column in today's Washington Post. He writes in "Banish the Cyber-Bigots" that

"User-driven content on the Internet often consists of bullying, conspiracy theories and racial prejudice. The absolute freedom of the medium paradoxically encourages authoritarian impulses to intimidate and silence others. The least responsible contributors see their darkest tendencies legitimated and reinforced, while serious voices are driven away by the general ugliness.

Ethicist Clive Hamilton calls this a 'belligerent brutopia.' 'The Internet should represent a great flourishing of democratic participation, he argues. 'But it doesn't. . . . The brutality of public debate on the Internet is due to one fact above all -- the option of anonymity. . . . Free speech without accountability breeds dogmatism and confrontation.'

This destructive disinhibition is disturbing in itself. It also allows hatred to invade respected institutional spaces on the Internet, gaining for these ideas a legitimacy denied to fringe Web sites."

Also worth considering is David Paul Kuhn’s piece, “The Industrial Partisan Complex,” at RealClearPolitics. Kuhn notes that “Even as partisanship increasingly defines the American political system, the electorate has become less partisan in recent decades. Independents have swelled to record levels, last seen in the early 1990s. But Washington is more divided than any time since at least the Second World War.”

Noting Bill Bishop’s theory of “the big sort,” Kuhn describes the ease with which political partisans can withdraw into tribalism due to their choices of news sources and forums, book clubs, even dating services. “The result is segregation by choice. It's the partitioning of not merely thought but American experiences. Each tribe has come to view the other as nearly foreign. And what is foreign is therefore dismissed. The cost is compromise. And the outcome is a paralysis of governance.”

Most posters on message boards probably do not think tactically about how they represent the party or ideology they support But historians will have to take into account whether what they say takes a toll. And it behooves an administration to keep up with how its supporters engage its critics. A President can use his speeches to set the tone at the top, even to have Sister Souljah moments. Some of the writers at The Corner at National Review have argued that they never called George W. Bush's critics unpatriotic while he was President. Yet many anonymous commentators on message boards did just that. It was a move that backfired as it insulted needlessly a lot of Independent voters as well as the increasing number of people who came to doubt the wisdom of having gone to war in Iraq. In the end, anonymous posters' bluster on message boards about patriotism may have hurt rather than helped President Bush. An administration may formulate a communications strategy and try to apply message discipline to what its official surrogates say. But in the age of the Internet, it's all too easy for people to see how some citizens (whether they are outliers or represent ordinary people) feel viscerally about the issues. Something for the present administration to consider, even if the past one did not seem to do so.

David D White - 9/24/2009

Professor Troy's piece is so emblematic of how frustrating honest discussions of race can be. He blithely dismisses President Carter's assertion that much of what drives the current vitriolic political climate is driven by racism by--ignoring any and all evidence that opposition is driven by racism. How does he do this? By citing how other presidents have been castigated and critized. Never acknowledging that the fact that other presidents have been criticized does not mean that this one is not being targeted largely because of his race. How does he explain Glen Beck's assertions that the health care reform is a surreptitious plot to introduce "reparations" (to who else but blacks?) and that he has a "deep-seated hatred for white people". How do you explain this without introducing the racial demagoguery implied therein. How about Rush Limbaugh playing "Barack the Magic Negro" and saying Obama "hates white people". What about the numerous racial incidents throughout the country prior to and after President Obama's election? What about the numerous elected officials with "R"'s by their names with the racist e-mails and postcards and pictures (those are only the ones that got into the wrong hands-for which they in essence apologized for them getting in the wrong hands! One need only do a google search to find countless incidents that no matter how much he might not like to face it were specifically racially motivated. No matter how much we may like to believe racism is but a mere formality reality says it much more. Ignoring it or intentionally trying to wallpaper it only makes it fester. That's why Attorney General Holder called us a "nation of cowards" when it comes to race.
I don't know Professor Troy so I can't really say what his motives are for writing this the way he did but it is obvious that he is willfully or blissfully ignorant or transparently disingenuous. Saying that America's leaders "lied" in the runup to the Iraq War is a "vicious attack?!!!! Give me a break!!! "There is no doubt they have WMD's" and yellowcake for uranium and the last thing I want is war and Saddam is in cahoots with the terrorists---all lies!! As a historian it seems to me he would see the difference between facts and "vicious attacks"- unless of course he's being intentionally blindered. No, the people who call our duly elected president an "Indonesian Muslim turned welfare thug" and claim to "know" that he is not American and refuse to allow their children to hear him talk about staying in school and trying hard, most are driven by racism. The other presidents he mentioned never had to endure disparagements about the ancestry,never had to hear from elected officials that his wife's relative may have been an ape, never had to endure ghetto humor directed at their pre-teens.
The problem with overcoming racism is not ostensibly with those who openly wear their racism on their sleeves. The real challenge is to get those who are comfortable with denying their racism. To the point that anyone who says otherwise is villified and downgraded for having the audacity to point out something they prefer not to see. None is so blind as he who refuses to see. That's what's so frustrating. We want to see ourselves as morally upright. We see people who are racist as people who are not morally upright.Ergo, I refuse to see myself as a racist. So did Jesse Helms but historical record would beg to differ and all the protestation in the world would change a truly objective person's view of him-and nothing would change the view of one who chose to refuse to believe it.
Jesse Helms was secure in his racism and in his self-righeousness and it probably would have taken an act of God to change him. I hope and pray that America has enough people of geniune goodwill who willing and courageous enough to delve deep in their souls to root out anything they find unacceptable and not try to cover it with soothing platitudes like "they do it too" or "Rush says my feelings are justified and I shouldn't feel guilty". It is not about guilt. It is about doing what is right and what is redemptive for our great country. The more we refuse to confront it the worse it has the potential to become. In the book "They Thought They Were Free" ,the author characterized the self-analysis of ordinary Germans of the Nazi era this way: "We have to justify our having injured those we have injured, or we have to persuade others to our guilty view in order to implicate them in our guilt." Jimmy Carter put a spotlight on an ugly sore and his not being black leaves it difficult to use the ol' reverse racism charge-"we can't criticize him because he'll hide behind a racism claim". That leaves only a few choices-castigate and disparage Mr. Carter to try to blunt the charge,ignore or make up homological strawmen("they did it too")or confront the injury, resolve to amend and release the guilt. There's no benefit to the country in being disingenuous or ignorant.

Maarja Krusten - 9/22/2009

Barack Obama was born in 1961 in the Hawaii to a white mother and a black father. His books show a great deal of reflection on his two sides, I recommend reading them if you haven’t. He is much more introspective and interesting than many politicians.

You ask why Obama is considered black. Why does it matter in 2009? Should it matter? I don’t know what any of HNN’s readers were doing in 1961, the year the President was born. (I was in elementary school in Washington, DC). But consider what was happening elsewhere in the United States that year. In some parts of the nation, it then mattered a great deal if you were classified as black or white. And if you were a young divinity student or a future Congressman who fought for a black person’s right to sit next to a white person on a bus, you put your life at risk. Demonstrating nonviolently for racial justice, those men and women showed courage of a type we haven’t seen among civilians in the U.S. in recent decades.

Montgomery, Alabama, May 1961, the Greyhound bus depot: “The first [Freedom] Rider to be assaulted was [Jim] Zwerg, who bowed his head in prayer as a group of attackers close in. Attracting special attention as the only white male Rider, he was knocked to the pavement amid screams of ‘filthy Communists, nigger lovers, you’re not going to integrate Montgomery.’ . . . As the other Riders looked on in horror. . . Klansmen kicked Zwerg in the back before smashing him in the head with his own suitcase. Dazed and bleeding, Zwerg struggled to get up, but one of the Klansmen promptly pinned the defenseless student’s arms back while others punched him repeatedly in the face. To Lucretia Collins, who witnessed the beating from the backseat of a departing taxicab, the savagery of Zwerg’s attackers was sickening. ‘Some men held him while white women clawed his face with their nails,’ she recalled. “And they held up their little children—children who couldn’t have been more than a couple of years old—to claw his face. I had to turn my head because I just couldn’t watch it.’ Eventually Zwerg’s eyes rolled back and his body sagged into unconsciousness. After tossing him over a railing, his attackers went looking for other targets.

Turning to the black Freedom riders huddled near the railing, several of the Klansman rushed forward. The first victim in their path was William Barbee. . . [who] had only a moment to shield his face before the advancing Klansmen unleashed a flurry of punches and kicks that dropped him to the payment. While one Klansman held him down, a second jammed a jagged piece of pipe into his ear, and a third bashed him in the skull with a baseball bat, inflicting permanent damage that shortened his life. Moments later, [John] Lewis went down, struck by a large wooden Coca-Cola crate. ‘I could feel my knees collapse and then nothing,’ he recalled.”

Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, 214.

Just for trying to sit together on a Greyhound bus. How many of us here on HNN would shown such courage as these ordinary American students, black and white, in 1961?

Bill Heuisler - 9/22/2009

Mr. Garcia,
You are silly to use a term like "white domination" in any discussion of race, politics or nationality. Would you call it yellow domination in China? Brown domination in Saudi Arabia? Perhaps Anglo Saxon domination would be better...or maybe Nordic, but that leaves out some Scots and Irish who are often so white as to be nearly translucent.

Who is white? Does white refer to European or to skin color? Is a Mexican or Chilean with Castilian forefathers white? Why is President Obama called black when he is really just tan with both anglo and African parents? Isn't he equally as white as he is otherwise?

Doesn't the whole stupid argument reflect an unnecessary division promoted by politicians like Jesse Jackson and Jimmy Carter who find divisions politically convenient?
Bill Heuisler

Shel Barry Silver - 9/22/2009

The comments attributed to the (apparently pseudonymous & symbolic) 'Dr. Troy", were produced either by a split literary personality or a dry political wit:
Voice # 1 is supposedly a pragmatic centrist who reminds us, "American politics is a contact sport,", reassures us "Mr. Obama is controversial because he's seeking big changes," & reasonably wonders if the problem is just, "...Americans' ability to speak, text and listen only to those with whom they agree."
Then, voice #2--whether in comic illustration of the pragmatist's warning or in a Mr. Hyde-like polemic is unclear--charges, " is dishonest for Mr. Carter, Ms. Dowd & others to play the race card...", sharply condemns,"...implying that anyone who dares a redneck," continues, "...American politics needs a different tone," only to conclude (in obverse of such a tone) that, "these delusional, demagogic, racial recriminations only make things worse."[!!]
Wait, I've reconsidered--it has to be a joke.

Donald Wolberg - 9/21/2009

When in doubt, punt, and when in trouble, make lots fo noise that distracts. There is a clear indication that the Obama administration is plunging into the abyss of flawed and failed administrations with only the Carter failure for comparison. It is also ironic that the histrionics of Mr. Carter, bumbling along and intruding where he is no more accomplished now then he was long ago, seems to have begun the latest distraction. Mr. Carter does no one a favor and has hurt Mr. Obama even more. The failure of the Obama administration in economics, foreign policy, defense, the environment, etc., has the same causation as the Carter failures:lack of knowledge, experience, perspective and inherent capability. The thinness of the Obama resume echos in the army of "czars" from teh admitted communist, Chavez proponent, headline scavenger Mr. Jones, to the ghosts of Mr. Ayers and Mr. Wright, and the latest Acorn disclosures. Unfortunately, the price of this broad failure is for us all to bear. Mr. Carter is the distraction, but essentially a bad play still running with not much of a crowd attending. Mr. Obama and his administration are current and damaging, and will continue to be so until the next election cycle.

Maarja Krusten - 9/21/2009

A two part response, one for the general reader and the author of the essay, the second for the author.

1. Obama can't lower the tone alone. There are and will be plenty of opportunities for Obama's critics to speak up on the issue of racism. Anyone who has read message boards where anonymous members of the public congregate has seen the President referred to as the Mulatto Messiah and his wife as Aunt Jemima. Or worse. And we've all read the on-line discussions (such as one in today’s Washington Post) where people shake their heads at acquaintances who make jokes about the First Family's family tree and gorillas.
One thing to look out for is the degree of comfort people have in calling out fellow posters with whom they otherwise agree ideologically when they make racist comments. If opposition to Obama mostly is philosophical or political and not racial, shouldn't it be easy for otherwise like minded people to post rejoinders such as "that's ugly and uncalled for. I didn't vote for him, but he's the President voted in to office by a majority of the American people. He has as much right to sit in the Oval Office as a white man.. While I agree with you politically, I don't want to be associated with racial attacks on the President. Let's man up and just argue policies, leave skin color out of it."

Which are we more likely to see, calling out racism that way or crying that "they're going to call anyone who disagrees with Obama a redneck!" I'm betting on the latter simply because it is a low risk response. We see few models for speaking out in high risk situations these days. But the best way to show that race isn't a big factor for anti-Obama commenters is to call out use of racist images strongly whenever encountered. Especially in forums that reward echo chamber solidarity of the type the commenter may value.
It takes more courage to call out bad behavior by people you want to bond with – your in-crowd, in schoolyard terms -- than ones you oppose politically. (I know it’s not easy. I didn’t enjoy telling my fellow historians here on HNN they were premature in voting George W. Bush one of the worst Presidents while he still was in office. Saying an action diminishes us all is not the way to make friends on message boards. But I opposed a premature poll on Bush such as the one HNN published a couple of years ago and spoke out against it.) If you're against racism, show it. Think about it outside your policy arguments (libertarian, conservative, populist, whatever) and condemn it when you see it. If your condemnation is on message boards, it'll become part of the record, just as existing comments about Obama now are.

2. Steve Chapman, a conservative commentator at Townhall, made much the same points you did about ferocious opposition to past Presidents. He noted, "Does that mean the ferocious criticism has nothing to do with race? Of course not. Obama may be a "post-racial" figure, but there is still a significant slice of the electorate that has never gotten past his skin color.
For anyone who regards blacks as irredeemably alien or inferior, Obama is a nightmare, not just because he is black but because he so thoroughly confounds racist stereotypes.
But that's a minor factor, not a decisive one. It is Obama's party and policies that are the real source of the opposition. If you think otherwise, consider how calmly and congenially the right would have responded if a different Democrat had been inaugurated on Jan. 20: Al Gore."

Dr. Troy, that some political discourse against Presidents of both parties has been vicious in recent decades is indisputable. But I'm surprised that an historian of your stature would write "there's a growing chorus complaining that this summer's hostility to his stimulus package, to his health care reform, and to Mr. Obama himself is racist." Shouldn't that be "there's a growing chorus complaining that *some* of this summer's hostility. . . ." None of the people you cite has said all opposition is racist. Dowd said she had been disinclined to think race played much of a role until recently but now has rethought that. She pointed to a fringe which she believes gives off a worrisome vibe based on Obama's race. Carter said racism was a factor (Obama said he disagreed with Carter, as it happens). Carter said racism appears to him to be an overwhelming part – but even he did not claim that racism explains all of the opposition. Neither Carter nor Dowd has said, as you imply they did, that "anyone who dares disagree with Mr. Obama's health-care plan or stimulus package is a redneck."

That type of exaggeration, with its twinge of boo-hoo-hoo, may be common in some political circles. But it is jarring in an essay by an historian I've come to consider over two years of reading to be one of the more thoughtful writers here. By over-reaching that way, you undermine your main points. I'm more accustomed to calling out historians on the left when they overreach (remember my comments on the reviews of Charlie Wilson's War?) but dislike it wherever I see it.

The task for historians will be to sort out why people reacted to Obama as they did. Like it or not, historians will have to consider whether there is something extra – something based on race -- in the mix for this President, unlike his predecessors. And the extent to which, knowing that the nation is not color-blind and that residual racial hatreds exist, Obama had to show extra courage in running for President. The task for historians will be to figure out if and how racist attitudes affected acceptance of the President's legitimacy and/or opinions on specific public policy matters. The answer may turn out to be, very little. But figuring out the extent may prove hard to do. As you point out, these things don’t always necessarily align the way people think. Motivation will be difficult for historians to unravel. But to argue that Obama’s situation mirrors that of his predecessors would be ahistorical.

Charles Lee Geshekter - 9/21/2009

There is as much evidence that criticism of Obama's policies is based on racism as there is bicoastal disdain for people born to midwestern mothers!!

Get a grip.

Thank God people like Val Jones, Bertha Lewis, Jeremiah Wright, David Patterson and Al Sharpton don't have a single, solitary racist bone in their bodies!!

'Nuff said.

Daniel Horowitz Garcia - 9/21/2009

How is this discussion different than a 6th grade playground fight? The definitions of race and racism are one dimensional and self serving. Racism is not an emotion and to be racist is not a feeling. Mr. Troy's article relies on this trope because without it one must confront the reality of white domination. That is not a road conservatives or liberals are willing to walk. Better to call race a card and relegate it to an "issue" separate and distinct from political reality.

Michael Green - 9/21/2009

And this comment demonstrates the aforementioned fallacy. "Obamaniacs" have used the claim, but many Obama supporters also believe that racism is not an issue. So wouldn't this criticism be categorized not as racist, but as pointless in its own right for not acknowledging the above?

John D. Beatty - 9/21/2009

As all persons know, there are two things that anyone can accuse anyone else of that cannot be denied:

1) Sex offender

2) Racist.

These are the ultimate rhetorical weapons in American "discourse," ad hominems that are never questioned or challenged without the finger being pointed at the challenger.

What is more remarkable is that it took a full nine months for the Obamaniacs to first use the "R" word. Soon, all those who question or criticize any part of the Obama agenda will be labeled as racists, and the popular press will agree wholeheartedly. It is inevitable and truly sad.

Michael Green - 9/21/2009

President Carter certainly may be criticized--the whole issue is open to debate. But Professor Troy makes the equally grievous error, it seems to me, of arguing that race has nothing to do with criticism of President Obama. To claim that none of the criticism is racist is at least as silly as saying that all of it is racist.

Mike A Mainello - 9/20/2009

I cant agree with you more.

What is ironic is the clip of President Carter commenting on President Obama's selection as the democrat candidate. He called him "boy" at the end of his comment.