In 2004 Sen. Barack Obama captured the nation’s attention. He called for an end to the politics of racial division: “There’s not a Black America and White America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.” As Election Day nears and political differences are magnified, it is important to remind Americans, Democrat and Republican, of those unifying sentiments.
Soon Americans will determine who will serve as the next president. In the last election, a majority voted for Obama, making him the first minority Commander in Chief. Obama’s historic victory caused many to wonder if America had entered a post-racial period where color would be irrelevant. Recent events suggest that America remains far from that imagined utopia.
Our history is filled with race-baiting politics. For example, in 1868, black delegates to the South Carolina Constitutional Convention were called “baboons, monkeys and mules.” Forty years later, when President Theodore Roosevelt invited black educator Booker T. Washington to dine with him at the White House, Gov. James Vardaman of Mississippi commented: “Probably old lady Roosevelt, during the period of gestation, was frightened by a dog, and the fact may account for the qualities of the male pup that are so prominent in Teddy. I would not do either an injustice, but am disposed to apologize to the dog for mentioning it.”
President Obama has been the recipient of similarly offensive treatment. Newt Gingrich questioned his work ethic when he referred to Obama as “the food stamp president,” Donald Trump questioned his admission into Harvard University when he referred to Obama as “the affirmative action president,” and Congressman Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) questioned his veracity when he compared Obama to a tar baby.
These references tap into false stereotypical notions of black inferiority such as Obama wants a free ride just like blacks on welfare; Obama couldn’t possibly have earned those degrees based on merit; or Obama is biased against whites. Not even George W. Bush, whose college performance was said to be marginal, was asked to produce transcripts. Yet Obama, the leader of an organization reserved for top students, faced such inquiry.
Moreover, some whites oppose Obama’s policies because they imagine those policies are intentionally designed to harm whites. For example, Rush Limbaugh said that Obama’s health-care legislation enabled Obama to redistribute wealth from whites to blacks. Limbaugh’s reasoning was based on the fact that higher percentages of whites (90 percent) retained health insurance coverage than blacks (81 percent) and Obama’s legislation would provide free coverage for those previously uninsured blacks.
Of course, many oppose Obama for political reasons. But when treatment deviates significantly from the normal opposition, such as the request to produce a birth certificate when no previous leader had to present such credentials, it causes thoughtful Americans to wonder whether race is the motivation.
Some of today’s rhetoric is eerily reflective of our painful past. Obama has been depicted as a monkey or analogized to an ape. Most disparaging was the e-mail circulated by federal judge Richard Cebull denigrating Obama’s mother by comparing blacks to animals in analogizing interracial marriage and sexuality to bestiality. Unfortunately, subtle appeals to racist notions, what I call ghosts of Jim Crow, continue to haunt us.
While much of this language is generated by Republican tea party supporters, Democrats are not immune from such appeals. Last July before a predominantly black audience, Vice-President Biden characterized Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s policies as an attempt to “put y’all back in chains” reminding many of slavery.
Romney and Obama have different visions, especially with respect to immigration policy, abortion protections, and gender equality laws. As former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Republican, did in his recent endorsement of Obama, Americans should examine these positions carefully rejecting appeals to consider either candidate’s race.
Polls suggest that Obama will receive over a third of the white vote while Romney will receive a slightly smaller percentage of the minority vote. For some the percentages reflect recognition by these voters that a particular candidate’s platform, philosophy, or record is more appealing. Yet for others, like the white voter who attended a Romney rally wearing a tee shirt that read “Put the white back in the White House,” it may be a simple case of color.
F. Michael Higginbotham is the Wilson H. Elkins Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore and the author of the forthcoming book Ghosts of Jim Crow: Ending Racism In Post-Racial America