Few people were surprised when conservative commentators started criticizing President Obama for commenting on the Michael Brown shooting and aftermath in Ferguson, Missouri, and a new Pew poll shows why: white and Republican Americans are more likely to think race is getting too much attention in Ferguson. Conservative commentators calling the president racist are just the most prominent and extreme examples of people who think Obama is addressing race issues that don't exist.
In the last week, right-wing blog WND published a column by Larry Klayman arguing that the president was the "Racist in chief" for siding with his "black brothers" against "'whitey.'" Fox News' Todd Starnes wondered why the president offered condolences to Michael Brown's family, but didn't offer his condolences to the cop who shot him. Daniel Greenfield at FrontPage magazine wrote that the president "tends to avoid explicitly racist rhetoric. Instead he empowers those who do."
The essays are the extreme example of what Pew shows is a common trend: 47 percent of white people think race is getting too much attention, as opposed to only 18 percent of blacks and 25 percent of Hispanics. Sixty-one percent of Republicans think race is receiving too much focus, compared to 46 percent of Independents and 21 percent of Democrats. The divide is more extreme now than when Trayvon Martin was killed, but still in both cases there was a divide between whites and blacks.
With that in mind, it makes sense that white conservatives would see the president's remarks as race baiting. Last year, the president said Trayvon Martin "could have been my son" and explained that:
There are, frankly, very few African-American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least before I was a senator. ... And I don't want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida.
Then, too, he sparked negative conservative reactions including one from the aforementioned Todd Starnes:
Obama's comments today justify what I said on Hannity earlier this week. He truly is trying to tear our country apart.— toddstarnes (@toddstarnes) July 19, 2013
If, like Starnes, you don't see how race is relevant to what happened in Ferguson, then Obama addressing race seems like an escalation. To people who think the Michael Brown shooting raises important questions about race, it seems normal for the president to acknowledge the racial politics of what's going on. If anything, people wish the president would go further.