The Myth of an Affirmative-Action President

Why, I wonder, do so many people question how Barack Obama got where he is, while no one asks the same about Mitt Romney?

Obama for America

El presidente, reporting from Tampa, catches this from Karl Rove:

Speaking of which, if you watch the video, you'll see that while Rove didn't venture a theory for why whites have moved away from Obama in Indiana, he did propose one for a similar dynamic in North Carolina. There, he said, in 2008 "New South independents" (meaning, I think, white independents) who were "racial moderates, economic conservatives" had supported Obama in the belief that "this will be really good for the country -- let's put the issue of race behind us." But now they are disappointed in Obama because he's "done a lousy job on the economy, and he's not a fiscal conservative." This analysis tells a story that Obama was elected, in the first place, because of his race, but that whites now think this was a failed experiment. The echo is pretty hard to miss: We gave a guy a boost he didn't entirely deserve in order to correct a historic wrong; too bad he wasn't up to it. Are white voters ready to conclude that Obama is an affirmative-action president?
It's a familiar echo which goes all the way back to calls for Obama's college transcripts. What Republicans have yet to come to terms with is that Obama -- race aside -- is a formidable politician. You hear echoes of the early days of the integration of black athletes into the sports world, when white racists would contort themselves trying to understand how, exactly, someone like Jack Johnson had prevailed. It's very hard for Rove and his allies to get their heads around the fact that they got thumped in 2008 by an Ivy League black dude from Hawaii. Some scheme must be afoot. 

But there's also something else -- the frame of skepticism is, as always, framed around Obama, not around Romney. No one wonders what advantages accrued to Mitt Romney, a man who spent his early life ensconced in the preserve of malignant and absolutist affirmative action that was metropolitan Detroit. Romney's Detroit (like most of the country) prohibited black people from the best jobs, the best schools, the best neighborhoods, and the best of everything else. The exclusive Detroit Golf Club, a short walk from one of Romney's childhood homes, didn't integrate until 1986. No one is skeptical of Mitt Romney because of the broader systemic advantages he enjoyed, advantages erected largely to ensure that this country would ever be run by men who looked like him.

This kind of skepticism -- racism at its most common -- is in the air. It surrounds us, and upon this willful ignorance, Americans demand proof of Barack Obama's existence. The better of us attempt to contest such demands with facts. But the contest itself indulges racism. To truly get to the meat of the thing we must understand why some questions are asked and some are not. Why some standards are aggressively enforced and others are not.  It would be nice to believe that voter ID laws are primarily about the desire for a more secure democracy. But I fear that such flattery will get us nowhere.

There's more on this in my September piece, "Fear of a Black President."
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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