Brian Birdnow

 

Many commentators and editorialists have examined President Barack Obama’s now-famous remark that “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon (Martin)”.  The pundits have scrambled to find meaning in the president’s comment, and have advanced many possible theses as explanations.  Some have chalked this up to an old fashioned Clintonesque strategy of milking political gain by showing empathy in the face of personal tragedy.  Others have argued that this was a political bouquet tossed to his base of support during an increasingly tough re-election campaign.  Still others have dismissed the statement as mere political sound and fury, signifying nothing; an inconsequential remark likely to be forgotten. 

A closer look at this statement, and a review of a lesser reported, but no less significant racially tinged comment in recent days leads an unbiased observer to question the good intentions of our unifying, healing, “post-racial” President.  In mid-March, Lovie Smith, head coach of the NFL Chicago Bears, taped a commercial spot for the Obama re-election campaign.  Coach Smith characterized the 2012 election as a matter of racial solidarity, stating that Black voters have a duty to actively support the first African-American president.  Smith finished his spot with a rhetorical flourish, saying, “Barack, we got your back.”  Consider the divisive nature of a Black football coach urging his fellow African-Americans to support a black president, all in the name of racial solidarity.  (The reader might also consider the complete ruination of a Caucasian football coach who would urge his fellow white voters to support Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum in the name of racial solidarity.)  This blatant appeal to race is the type of campaigning that people have grown to expect from the likes of Louis Farrakhan, Al Sharpton, and, to a lesser extent, Jesse Jackson.  It is not the type of campaigning people have grown to expect from the cool intellectual, the professor-in-chief, the post-racial President Barack Obama.  After all, Obama eschewed Black radicalism and presented himself as a friend of Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg, heralding a new paradigm of non-racial politics, didn’t he? 

In actuality, the appeal to race is a continuing theme of the Obama campaign style, and is likely to intensify as the calendar turns to November.  Let us return to the historical record:

In 2008, the Reverend Louis Farrakhan stoutly endorsed Obama for President, stating that it was “America’s only shot at redemption.”   Similarly, during the 2008 campaign, the public became aware of the race baiting and hating sermons delivered by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the future president’s spiritual mentor.  It is clear from this record that then-candidate Obama agreed with the proposition that America is, and has always been a fundamentally racist nation. 

Seeking to calm the storm after the revelation of the Reverend Wright’s remarks, Obama gave a speech on the issue of race in America, in which he referred to his grandmother as a “…typical White person…” who distrusted and feared Black males.  During this same general period Obama spoke disdainfully of working class Whites as bitter misanthropes “…who cling to their guns and religion.”  After his election to the Presidency, Mr. Obama continued to engage in this type of reckless rhetoric.  He accused the Cambridge, Massachusetts police of “acting stupidly” when they answered a call involving the celebrated Harvard professor, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  The president attributed racist intent to the responding officers, and belatedly invited them to the White House for a beer, in lieu of an apology. 

President Obama’s speeches have always conveyed a certain racial connotation, one in which he seems to indicate his belief that America is a nation conceived in racism, not liberty.  In his speech, “A More Perfect Union”, Obama asserted that the U.S. Constitution was an unfinished document, “…stained by the nation’s original sin of slavery”.  During the President’s widely derided apology tour, he regularly listed a catalogue of American sins, many of which could be traced to the root cause of White privilege.  Certainly the President earnestly believes that he can open a new era in American relations with the Third World, because he is not stained with the sin of American racism. 

If we hit the fast forward button and move closer to today, we can see that the Wall Street Journal headline of March 17, 2010 stated, “Obama’s New Partner: Al Sharpton”.  Sharpton is introduced as Obama’s chief ally in marginalizing critical voices in the Black community, and the point man in keeping the base happy, as polls show that Obama commands a general approval rating of roughly 50% among the general public, but Black voters still endorse Obama by about a 90% margin. What is most important in this development is the fact that Obama is now openly seeking the assistance of the Black radicals he once avoided.  This might explain the reason that the President pounced on the Trayvon Martin issue like a duck on a june bug, and appears to have accepted a racially charged political endorsement, from an NFL coach.   (The National Football League has, as of today, made no official statement on the issue) 

 

  Is this a preview of coming attractions?  Will the nation see a continuing appeal to racial solidarity coming from an incumbent who claims to be a uniter, a healer, and the herald of a new and improved non-racial politics?  More importantly, is this an accurate depiction of the future of the new, post-racial America? 


Brian Birdnow

Brian E. Birdnow is a historian and teaches at a university in the St. Louis area.