Abetting inequality in post-racial U.S.

The audience applauds as President Obama speaks at the James Lee Community Center in Falls Church, Va
The audience applauds as President Obama speaks at the James Lee Community Center in Falls Church, Va (CLIFF OWEN / Associated Press)
Posted: February 02, 2012

Among other race-baiting, presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has referred to the nation's first African American president as a "food stamp president," and someone who engages in "Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior," a coarse reference to President Obama's African father and a nod to "birtherism."

Not content merely to demean the president, Gingrich has said that poor black children lack role models and a work ethic - a broadside against millions of black, working-poor parents who each day serve as shepherds for their children and instill in them work and other ethics.

Yet the only person who has responded more passively to the former speaker's racialism than his Republican rivals has been President Obama himself. The irony of having a black man in the White House is that he is disarmed from responding to white opponents who flirt with a revivification of the Republican Party's Southern strategy. Indeed, Obama has been disarmed, or has unilaterally disarmed himself, from sustained engagement with questions of race during his first term.

The concern on Obama's part appears to be that middle-of-the-road white voters will not tolerate a black politician focusing on race, even if his purpose is to upbraid someone like Gingrich for making racially inflammatory comments. This concern is not unfounded, yet in succumbing to political reality, Obama has simply reinforced a different iteration of white racial intolerance.

Obama's systematic avoidance of race, and the Republican primary electorate's at times lusty embrace of racial code, is symptomatic of the paradox of race in the age of Obama. Race can still be deployed as a sword by troglodytes seeking to prime white voters' latent - and in some cases, active - stereotypes of blacks. Yet race cannot be part of a national dialogue or policy agenda about racial equality.

Thus, Rep. Michele Bachmann can opine with electoral impunity that black children had a better chance of living in a two-parent household in slavery than they do today. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum can make the ridiculous claim that as a black man, Obama has no right to support abortion rights. And neither Rick Perry's "Niggerhead" controversy nor Ron Paul's anti-black newsletters are sufficient to derail their political careers or presidential campaigns.

In contrast, whenever Obama has been asked about race in its nonaversive sense - about, for example, policies that might be targeted to African American communities to alleviate their disproportionately high jobless rate - he responds that he must be president of all Americans and race-specific policies are divisive. Complementing this suppression of discussion of racial remediation is the fear that if black elected officials or black voters press the first black president too hard on black-centric concerns, they will disadvantage him among white voters who may perceive an aura of excessive race simply because race is being raised by the African American electorate.

But if racial conservatives are free to deploy race for cynical political gain while African Americans must stifle their interests for fear of white backlash, this imbalance itself is potent evidence of racial inequality in America.

Republicans like Gingrich understand well what it means to live in today's post-racial America and the political gift this surreal state of affairs is for racial throwbacks like him. Post-racialism has little to do with moving beyond race - the regrettable utterances of most of this year's Republican candidates for president demonstrate this. Instead, post-racialism in practice is the insistence that the country move beyond issues of racial equality. The ironic result of African Americans, the first black president, and the Democratic Party abiding that insistence is the continuation of racial inequality.

Terry Smith is a professor at DePaul College of Law and the author of the forthcoming "Barack Obama, Post-Racialism and the New Politics of Triangulation" (Palgrave MacMillan).

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