The Great American Race…Card

Now we are hectored that opposition to Barack Obama’s policies, and him personally, is fueled “largely,” or “substantially,” by racism. That is to say, the millions of Americans (now, a slight majority according to polls) who oppose a government takeover of the health coverage industry are motivated by hostility to President Obama’s black skin color. What do we make of this ?

At first blush, since Obama is, of course, only half-black, critics should have alleged that only “half” the opposition is motivated by racism. Beyond that, it is undeniable that some people vehemently oppose the President because he is black, just like some (probably more) people opposed President Bush because he was an born-again Christian. Bigots endure, and they cannot be legislated out of existence. But the notion that those who oppose Obama do so because of his skin color is simply not credible, and is a shameless attempt to divert attention from his policies themselves – that have aroused and antagonized mainstream America – and to put opponents of those policies on the moral defensive. It is a diversionary tactic, to change the topic of discussion away from the merits or demerits of the arguments themselves and onto the moral caliber of the opponents. And that is a historic and sad decline in the annals of American political discourse.

If truth be told, Obama was elected because he was black, not in spite of his color. Anyone who doubts the reasonableness of this proposition needs to answer a simple question: can you name any other United States senator, from the class of 2004, who even remotely would have been considered presidential material ? Or, another: can you even name another member of the senatorial class of 2004 ? Answer: the only other first-term Democrat elected was Ken Salazar of Colorado, who, like Obama served for just four years and is now Secretary of the Interior, and who likely will never be heard from again.

Obama had the thinnest resume of any presidential candidate in recent times, much less an elected president – just several years as a state senator. But the people elected him by a small majority – 52-47%. How did that happen, and what role did his race play ? A substantial one.

Obama’s status as the first serious African-American candidate galvanized black and minority support in crucial Democratic (especially heavily urbanized) states, and doomed the candidacy (or coronation) of Hillary Clinton. His strongly liberal politics and the novelty of his candidacy mobilized many others. His presentation as a “non-threatening black” (as opposed to a Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton) who – having a white mother and grandmother – “transcended” race, and the explicit assertions of his campaign that his election could “heal America’s racial wounds,” “atone for America’s racist past,” and even put the “race issue” behind us once and for all appeased a majority of voters – who were, in any event, less than enamored with the Republican nominees.

The race card was played sporadically – but by the Obama campaign, and each time it encountered a rocky situation. It essentially makes Obama off-limits to any criticism – personal or political – stifles debate, and hinders the free exchange of ideas and opinions. By their reckoning – especially, and most ironically, by a Jew-hater like Jimmy Carter – any critic is suspect, and therefore any criticism need not be scrutinized on its merits.

As a shield, the race card is a wonderful tool. Consider: in today’s Wall Street Journal, a fine book review (of Norman Podhoretz’ “Why are Jews Liberals?’) begins: “In a conference call with more than 1,000 rabbis before Rosh Hashanah, President Barack Obama encouraged the religious leaders to use their sermons on the Jewish New Year to promote health-care reform. It is more than ironic that liberal Jews, who call for a complete separation of church and state, saw nothing wrong with the president scripting their sermons.”

While invited, I declined to participate in this monologue, orchestrated by the liberal Jewish groups. (I could not think of even one Orthodox rabbi who would be so bereft of a Torah message that he would actually preach about health-care on Rosh Hashana.) But, imagine for a moment, if President Bush had attempted a similar monologue – on Iraq policy, on social security privatization, on responding to terror. He would have been lambasted for overstepping the proper boundaries of American political life. Obama, on the other hand, has immunized himself from such criticisms – and from liberal Jews, even from condemnation over his wobbling support for Israel.

So it is fair to say that Obama would not have been elected had he not been black, and his candidacy benefited from the perfect storm of flawed Democratic challengers and weak Republican opponents. But now his presidency must stand on its own, and defend its policies on their merits. That might be a new experience for him and his acolytes, but it is indispensable to a fair public discourse.

Will there be a backlash against Obama because of the playing of the race card ? Certainly. But I expect a counter-backlash: subtle but clear references, come 2012, that President Obama’s re-election is a referendum on the state of race in America today. You vote for him ? You are a progressive denizen of the 21st century. You vote against him?  You might as well change your name to Jim Crow.

Complaining that opposition to you is only now racist after those same people elected is a bit hollow, and sounds like whining. The only way for Obama to overcome this is for him to state publicly and unequivocally that he respects his opponent’s positions but disagrees with them, and part of that respect is his personal repudiation that any of the mainstream opposition to his policies is race-based. Renounce racism as a factor and as a tactic.

Will he do that ? The chances are slightly less than the chance that I will eat a cheeseburger on Yom Kippur.

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One response to “The Great American Race…Card

  1. Reuven Ungar

    Rav Pruzansky- you hit the nail on the head. Non-racism includes the necessity of praising and/or delivering criticism due to the quality of a person’s actions and policies- not the color of his skin. If Obama wants to follow in the sordid footsteps of Carter, that is his prerogative, but he may not use his race as a defense.