How Obama’s Blackness Led to Trump

The Persistence of the Color Line by Randall Kennedy has a subtitle different from the one I gave to it as I was reading, which I used as the title of this post. Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency is the real subtitle, but I think that’s only because the book came out in 2011.

The book begins with the feeling in the country that the election of our first black president signaled the end or at least the beginning of the end of racism in America. Then it suggests that race influenced how Obama was perceived and evaluated and the author presents this as happening on both sides. From the introduction:

Racial liberals supported Obama more than they would have backed an ideologically similar white candidate while racial conservatives opposed Obama more than they would have opposed an ideologically similar white candidate.

At one point in Obama’s 2008 campaign, Obama launched an anticipatory attack on McCain, by preparing the public for a racialized line of attack from McCain. Including they would remind voters not to forget he was black. Randall Kennedy criticized that: “If you are going to indict someone for the social crime of racial wrongdoing, you should be careful about doing so, which means identifying with specificity the misconduct to which you object. Obama did not do that.” The author also credits McCain. “McCain’s record on racial matters is considerably less impressive than what one would like to see in a leading American statesman. Running for the presidency, however, and to the dismay of allies, McCain imposed upon himself a code of conduct that precluded taking full advantage of his opponent’s racial vulnerability.”

Randall Kennedy’s ability to objectively analyze all angles comes through clearly in his in-depth look at the case of Gates, the black Harvard professor neighbors reported for trying to break into his own home, July 16th, 2009. Gates reacted strongly to being approached, feeling his blackness was the cause, which was unfair to the police officer, Crowley, responding to the call. Although Crowley then overreacted by arresting Gates for disorderly conduct, a charge later dropped. [This is the author’s opinion but I agree. Police officers are trained to control situations for public safety but need to recognize instances when their presence is the instigating factor in a volatile situation and defuse that situation by exiting the scene. Gate’s reaction was extreme but understandable. So let him yell at you, let him yell about your mother. It’s not personal.] Kennedy called the beer summit that followed “lamentable,” but thought Obama’s response was fair. “The first black president must simultaneously address supporters who will be tempted to see racial bias in opposition—whether or not bias is actually present—and detractors who will be tempted to see opportunism in all complaints against racial prejudice—whether or not the complaints are justified. Obama seeks to appease the latter more than the former. He is deeply hesitant to claim that a criticism of him is in any way racially discriminatory. He is keenly attentive to the reality that racial discrimination is often hard to identify clearly and that the very effort to make the identification is often politically costly.”

He follows this case with the simple, generic case of a black customer in a store being treated rudely by a white cashier. Couldn’t the white cashier be dealing with personal issues or just a jackass to everybody? Of course. Couldn’t the white cashier, maybe, be a closet racist who treats black people rudely but hides his or her tracks? Also of course. “The problem, though, is still more complicated. People who engage in racial discrimination not only hide their prejudice from observers; they also often hide their prejudice from themselves. Many who engage in racial discrimination believe with all sincerity that they do not.”

As I said, this book came out in 2011, so the author never connects any of this to the rise of Trump but everything about it felt predictive of the 2016 election outcome. I think Obama had little to do with that, but our response to Obama, to his blackness, had a lot to do with it. Obama was just doing his hard job of being president, reading his daily briefings and making the best decisions he could for the country. And the vast majority of Americans aren’t racist and didn’t evaluate Obama based on his blackness. What I do think happened is people in agreement with Obama pointed at those opposed by finding the few whose criticisms were racially based and lumping them together. Meanwhile those with legitimate criticisms of Obama sincerely believed that his supporters were missing what was going wrong because they were overly sensitive to his blackness. All of this set the stage for Trump’s rise.

Obama avoided the fate of other black leaders, like Al Sharpton, who developed a reputation of always making everything about race, which creates an aggressive-cried-wolf perception among people. This racial sensitivity fatigue leads to the wrong-headedness of believing everyone else’s racial sensitivity couldn’t be sincere but must be the result of “political correctness” going too far, which led to misreading Trump’s racist and hateful, and essentially dull, rhetoric as refreshing. We were ready for a black president and we were ready for a woman president. What we couldn’t handle was a black president followed by a woman president. That was going too far.

The title of the post is provocative because these are disheartening times, for me and many. Those who think we’re overreacting to Trump’s presidency will criticize it, I imagine, but to be clear, all I said is that this subtitle for this book came to my mind. Nowhere have I ever suggested Trump voters are racist. That’s absurd. I don’t lump Trump voters all together and hope Trump supporters don’t lump all of us in protest of Trump together. In a close election myriad factors swung the result. This reaction to the perception that racial sensitivity is political correctness going too far is one of those factors that did swing this election. As Van Jones said on election night, “I know it’s not just about race, there is more going on than that, but race is here too and we got to talk about it.”