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Elections Do Matter

As a follow-up to my post from three days ago, I want to take stock of all that is at stake in this November’s election.

First, consider this article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic, Fear of a Black President. It is an impassioned analysis of how President Obama has been constrained throughout his term by the “dying embers” of white racism in America. It is a long, incisive, “angry” (his word) analysis, which deserves to be read carefully as a study of American history and our current discourse from a black perspective. Coates’ main argument is that by the simple fact of his blackness, Obama faces barriers to his legitimacy that a white president with the same politics wouldn’t have. He must always be on his best behavior, or “twice as good,” as Coates puts it. This makes him unable to “speak candidly” on the question of race, or by extension, many of the other issues confronting our nation today.

    “For most of his term in office, Obama has declined to talk about the ways in which race complicates the American present and, in particular, his own presidency. … The irony of Barack Obama is this: he has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear, by being ‘clean’ (as Joe Biden once labeled him)—and yet his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches. This irony is rooted in the greater ironies of the country he leads. For most of American history, our political system was premised on two conflicting facts—one, an oft-stated love of democracy; the other, an undemocratic white supremacy inscribed at every level of government. … Barack Obama governs a nation enlightened enough to send an African American to the White House, but not enlightened enough to accept a black man as its president.”

Coates brilliantly teases out the ways in which white supremacy is still alive in America, and how it has informed the obstructionism of Obama’s opponents in Congress, as well as the rise of the Tea Party with its slogan of “taking America back.”

    “Whatever the saintly nonviolent rhetoric used to herald it, racial integration [in the 1950s and 60s] was a brutal assault on whiteness. The American presidency, an unbroken streak of nonblack men, was, until 2008, the greatest symbol of that old order. … At rallies for the nascent Tea Party, people held signs saying things like Obama Plans White Slavery. Steve King, an Iowa congressman and Tea Party favorite, complained that Obama ‘favors the black person.’ … On Fox & Friends, Glenn Beck asserted that Obama had exposed himself as a guy ‘who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture…. This guy is, I believe, a racist.’ … More than a dozen state legislatures have introduced ‘birther bills’ demanding proof of Obama’s citizenship as a condition for putting him on the 2012 ballot. Eighteen percent of Republicans believe Obama to be a Muslim. The goal of all this is to delegitimize Obama’s presidency. If Obama is not truly American, then America has still never had a black president.”

This might seem like a way to excuse Obama for not being more effective as president— and in particular, for not going further on issues dear to progressives, among whom he allowed himself to be counted in the early days of the 2008 primary campaign. He hasn’t prosecuted fraudsters on Wall Street because it would look like an attack by a black man on a bastion of white privilege. He’s ramped up the Pakistan drone strikes, and failed to close Guantanamo or reverse the Patriot Act, because he needs to go overboard to show he’s not in cahoots with the terrorists. A president whose loyalty to white privilege was secure would have more room to maneuver. Coates doesn’t make this argument directly, though he strongly implies it. “Race is not simply a portion of the Obama story,” he says. “It is the lens through which many Americans view all his politics.” He gives two examples: Glenn Beck labeled Obama’s health care reforms “reparations,” a term for payments to the descendants of slaves that no one leveled against Bill Clinton’s own health care proposals; and Newt Gingrich referred to Obama as the “food-stamp president.”

A more recent example is the claim by the Romney campaign that Obama is trying to do away with the work requirement in welfare, because he wants to give handouts to people with no desire to work. This claim, aired in TV ads in battleground states and by Rick Santorum at the Republican National Convention, is demonstrably false. David Roberts addresses the question of what journalists should do when they call a campaign out on a lie, but the campaign keeps on doing it. Michael Fournier discusses the racial subtext—lazy black people are taking the money of hard-working whites—and why the Romney campaign has chosen to play the race card. A slew of recent articles describe the demographic calculations underlying this strategy: see Ronald Brownstein, Jonathan Chait, and The Week. In effect, as minority voters become an ever-larger share of the electorate, there are only two ways to win the presidency: either design policies with broad appeal to minorities as well as around 40% of the white vote, or write off minorities and win over 60% of the white vote. The Romney campaign knows it can’t win the first way, given near-zero support among blacks and an immigration policy that alienates Latinos, so they’re trying to win by firing up working-class white resentment. “This is the last time anyone will try to do this,” said a Republican strategist. It’s 2012 or never to win the presidency with the white vote alone.

This ties in nicely with another tactic Republicans are using this year, a campaign to suppress the turnout of young, poor, and minority voters—all likely Obama supporters—under the name of fighting “voter fraud.” Voter suppression was already a favorite tactic of Bush appointees in the previous decade, but it has really picked up steam over the past two years, as many Republican-dominated state legislatures have passed “Voter ID” laws that require a photo ID to vote. Their claim is that this will prevent people from voting under someone else’s name, but this is solving a problem that doesn’t exist. A recent study found only ten cases of voter impersonation nationwide, going back to 2000. Meanwhile, under the new laws, anyone with a driver’s license will be able to vote, but those without one will need to apply for a special ID before voting. This obliges them, first of all, to know about the new law, and second, to get to the office where IDs are given and pay the fee. Isn’t this a bit like the poll tax of Jim Crow days? It places an extra burden on the poor, those without a stable address, and the less well-connected or well-informed, even though voting is a Constitutional right. Fortunately, as Andrew Cohen reports, in every case that has come before a federal judge this year, “Voter ID” laws and similar restrictive measures have been struck down. The issue is still working its way through the courts, but eight federal judges have ruled, and without exception, including Republican appointees, they have all found the voter restrictions to be without merit. As Cohen puts it: “Sometimes, clarity brings justice. And sometimes justice brings clarity.”

The point of all this is that the Romney campaign knows it can’t win without firing up white racial resentment on the one hand, and suppressing the turnout of poor and minority voters on the other. Their policies don’t have the support of the majority of the American people, so they have to tweak that majority. This makes me wonder: if nothing is at stake in this election, then why this willingness to win dirty? Why go to such lengths to game the system? Why not accept the popular will in a sportsmanlike way, and fight again another day? It seems that something big is at stake, maybe the whole nature of the American project. Who has the right to be here, to participate, to be served by our government? White privilege and racial resentment are the common thread of everything I’ve written here. Will this be the America we proclaim to the world in 2012? Or will the “other America” that emerged in 2008 show it endures?

Clearly, the face of America is changing—not just racially, as whites move toward losing their majority around 2040—but also as the pendulum swings back towards greater tolerance on social issues, such as gay and women’s rights; and a new, more progressive generation engages in politics. What we’re experiencing are the death throes of the conservative dominance of politics that began with the “Reagan Revolution” of 1980. I’ll admit that I wasn’t planning to vote at all this year, out of disappointment with Obama for being too cautious, too incremental: I wanted a clean break, and he’s all about continuity and “leading from behind.” I still have these reservations, but when I see the tactics of the other side, I think about those who fought for their right to vote before I was born. Do I want to see that rolled back, in the name of wounded white privilege? Or do I want to keep hope alive that the American discourse will one day reflect all of its people?

2012 isn’t a “change” election for me, but it’s a necessary one. If we want to keep things moving in the right direction, we need to push back against the politics of resentment, defend the rights we already have, and stake a claim for the future. We need to show we are here. This may not be the most inspiring reason to vote, but it’s enough. So it looks like I’ll put my voting boots on once again, and support Obama despite my reservations. He’s our one and only black president, our Kenyan–Muslim “other.” Is it too much too ask that he’ll act a little bit more like this in his second term?

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