Before Barack Obama was elected as our 44th president, I issued a warning to my radio listeners: As much as I was eager to see a black man (and black family) in the White House, if he was the wrong man for the job, rather than bringing greater racial unity to America, he would bring greater racial strife.
I truly wish I had been wrong about this, but the facts speak for themselves. And clearly, this is not rocket science.
For the most part, a white, Hispanic, or Asian vote for Barack Obama in 2008 demonstrated that Americans were not going to let the color of his skin stop them from voting for him. They wanted an alternative to George Bush (and they saw John McCain as another President Bush). They were sick of the wars or they were convinced that a change was needed to improve the economy or they were impressed with Obama’s charismatic personality and vision.
Whatever it was that got their vote, Obama’s blackness didn’t stand in the way, and this in itself was a major step in the right direction for America. A vote like this would have been completely unthinkable just one generation ago (if not even less), let alone two generations ago. And there were many white Americans who actually voted for Obama because of his skin color, feeling that a vote for Obama was a vote for history, for justice, for healing.
To put this in perspective, when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball in 1947 (and so, after World War II), he received numerous death threats and needed special security. And before Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974, he received death threats from baseball fans who did not want to see a black man beat Babe Ruth’s record. And, as hard as it is to believe, it was not until 2000 that Alabama officially overturned its laws against interracial marriage. Yet in 2008, we elected our first black president.
I was working out in a local gym shortly after the elections when my trainer, a soft spoken black man in his 30’s, told me that he never dreamed he would see a black president in his lifetime. Other black men and women told me what this meant to them as parents: They could genuinely tell their kids that anything was possible in America.
I was deeply moved to hear these things and took them to heart, encouraging my radio audience to pray that Barack Obama would be the greatest president in our nation’s history, which would have made for an incredible story.
Just imagine that today, in 2012, we were all marveling at the amazing job Obama had done, making America great in the eyes of the world, bringing our economy back with strength and vigor, taking strong stands for the family unit, and bringing dignity to the office of the president. Think of how much that pride that would have brought to African Americans and how much satisfaction that would have brought to all but the most ardent racists. Unfortunately, it was not to be.
Worse still, from the first days of Obama’s presidency, any criticism of him was perceived by some to be racially based, setting up a scenario almost guaranteed to inflame tension and division. And to the extent that Obama played into these tensions – most famously by mishandling the arrest of black professor Henry Gates by white police officer James Crowley, for which the President later expressed his regret – a potentially positive situation became increasingly negative. And with his radical policies coming under a storm of criticism from many quarters, it has become all too easy to pull the race card in these closing days before the elections.
We now have Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Gen. Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, saying that his party, the Republican Party, “is full of racists.” He actually claimed that, “the real reason a considerable portion of my party wants President Obama out of the White House has nothing to do with the content of his character, nothing to do with his competence as commander in chief and president, and everything to do with the color of his skin. And that’s despicable.” (Question for Col. Wilkerson: Even if your observation about “a considerable portion” of the Republican Party was true, which it is not, is there no anti-white racism among blacks in the Democratic party?)
Then there was Chris Matthews, who said, “As a white person, I think it’s a statement against the white people to talk like this. It’s a sickness by the white people. Anyway, they ought to be ashamed of themselves.” (Notice he said “they” not “we,” since Matthews is clearly not that type of a white person.)
And then there was the aged Rev. Joseph Lowery’s alleged joke that all white people are “going to hell,” coupled with his indelicate comment that, “I don’t know what kind of ni**er wouldn’t vote with a black man running. Nobody intelligent would risk this country with Romney.”
This is where we are after four years of President Obama, but the reality is, for the vast majority of Americans, his election was not about race and, if he is defeated on Tuesday, it will not be about race.
We do well to focus on the real issues that caused his presidency to disappoint rather than to be bated into an argument about race.