The election of Barack Obama was meant to usher in a post-racial era in American society. However, it actually deepened the existing cleavages between progressive and conservative Americans. A racist, sexist bigoted old white man built his political reputation by leading the charge that claimed Obama wasn’t even an American citizen. This man was able to blunder his way through the Republican Presidential primaries, insulting every other opponent along the way. He insulted women, people of colour, even people with disabilities whilst campaigning for the Presidency. He was elected President. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. He was rightly called The First White President.
Progressives up and down the land jumped in joy back in November of 2008, myself included. I’m the son of a Kenyan immigrant, with a white American-born mother. I was raised in a post-racial atmosphere, and rarely had to confront my own blackness – such was my privilege. I believed the election of Obama was a singularly pivotal moment, I believed, like many, that his ascension would symbolize something deeper and powerful in Western society – a final push towards equality. Indeed, if we’ve learned anything over the last couple years, the fissures in Western society are much deeper and entrenched than we could have imagined.
According to the historian Nell Irvin Painter, “Race is an idea, not a fact, and essential to the construct of a “white race” is the idea of not being a n*gger.” (Painter)
This is a critical thing to understand when discussing the links between race and politics in America. Race has long been used by white politicians to drum up support from the white working classes. Here’s Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, on the eve of secession in 1861:
“I say that the lower race of human beings that constitute the substratum of what is termed the slave population of the South, elevates every white man in our community … It is the presence of a lower caste, those lower by their mental and physical organization, controlled by the higher intellect of the white man, that gives this superiority to the white laborer.”
This was the one way to guarantee white working class support. Create a social system wherein your whiteness supersedes your economic status. This was very clever and very manipulative. The institution of slavery was critical to the social fabric of industrial capitalist America. To convince millions of poor white people to stay poor, the white capitalists needed a framing device – and blackness was perfect. “Sure you’re poor, but at least you’re not black.”
Until the 1960s racial slurs were commonly used by politicians, especially Southern Democrats. Lee Atwater, a strategist for the Republican Party, was one of the people responsible for the ‘Southern Strategy’ – the successful plan to capture the votes of Southern Democrats using racially coded language. He made it clear:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, “N*gger, n*gger, n*gger”. By 1968 you can’t say “n*gger”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.”
The Democratic Primary in 2008 pitted Barack Obama against Hillary Clinton. This in and of itself was historic. No matter the outcome, the Democratic Party was going to nominate either the first woman or the first black man as a candidate for the presidency. Hillary Clinton was pretty clear during the campaign in 2008: “Obama is not winning over hard-working Americans, white Americans.”
America is unique in many ways, least of which its historical role as the “first” modern democracy. The only other country I can think of with a similar historical relationship with the mass enslavement of Africans is Brazil. Brazil didn’t gain independence until 1889 and took another hundred years to truly embrace democracy. The American constitution enshrined freedom and equality, which have been promoted as universal values. The tensions between the constitution and the institution of slavery led to the civil war, reconstruction and the civil rights movement.
In 2008 the economy was faltering, and America was pinned down in two intractable conflicts in the Middle East. A supremely unpopular Republican president was about to leave office. Barack Obama capitalised on his own personal charisma and inspired a new generation of voters. Young people turned out in their droves and elected him in a landslide. However, opposition to him was only growing from a powerful minority within the Republican party. Under the yoke of “states rights,” the Tea Party appeared, determined to stop literally everything and anything Obama tried to do. There was an instructive moment in 2009 when Obama made a statement on illegal immigration and a Republican congressman broke with decorum, stood up and shouted: “You lie.” He was promptly reprimanded by the house, but refused to make a public apology on the house floor. The implication was clear: a black man wasn’t supposed to be the President.
The most stunning attempt to undermine the validity of Obama’s presidency was the birther campaign. Birtherism alleges that Obama was not born in America. The birther campaign emerged amidst Obama’s first political campaign back in 2004. To be clear, birtherism was not a partisan issue. It was a racial issue. Obama ended up releasing two of his birth certificates, in 2008 and 2011 to prove his citizenship. Despite this, 15% of Americans still cling to the birther conspiracy. For what it’s worth, John McCain was born in the Panama Canal zone and has never been forced by the public to display his birth certificate.
Prominent Republicans who endorsed this campaign include Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Roy Moore, Newt Gingrich and of course, Donald Trump. To be clear, no person of colour has questioned Obama’s citizenship. Even Ben “Uncle Tom” Carson asked Trump to apologize for leading the birther movement.
I still believe in the power of symbols. Sure, Trump may be the First White President, but for the first time literally ever, people of colour broke a massive institutional and symbolic barrier. It’s not about now, it’s about thirty years from now. It’s about the little black girl growing up with a black president, first lady and family. It’s about the power of images. It’s about the future. The Trump era has rightly been painted as the last rage against the dying of the light. Fortunately, the world is changing, no matter how hard the Alt-Right fights it.
Sources not cited in-text
Nell Irvin Painter, “The History of White People”, WW Norton and Company, New York, 2010.
By Rashid Mohiddin
Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.