How Racists and Partisans Exploit the Age of Obama

Since 2008, the Democratic Party has increasingly become the home of minorities, while the Republican Party draws its support from whites.

Andrew Kelly/Reuters

One of my fondest memories was spending four days in February 1977 as a staffer sitting on the Senate floor, mostly wedged between Gaylord Nelson and Russell Long as the Senate debated a resolution to reform its committee system. They were good friends, lovely people, and great storytellers, and I mostly sat there taking their conversation in, occasionally earning my pay by letting them know what a particular provision of the resolution did or what an amendment would do.

At my request, Long opened up his Senate desk so I could see the signatures of all the senators who had used the same desk over many previous decades. The signature of Theodore Bilbo just jumped out at me. Bilbo was a legend—and not in a good way. In his two Senate terms representing Mississippi, from 1935 to 1947, he stood out as a mean and vicious racist, not shy about spouting ugly bile on the floor or elsewhere.

He wanted pure segregation and ultimately to send black Americans to Africa. He said, "The experiences and history of thousands of years prove that whenever and wherever the white and black man have tried to live side by side, the result has been mongrelization, which has destroyed both races and left a brown mongrel people." When he filibustered an antilynching bill in 1938, he called its supporters "mulattoes, octoroons, and quadroons." He use the "N" word incessantly, in and out of the Senate. Among a large collection of segregationists, he stood out for his ugly rhetoric and incitement of white Southerners to violence. As I sat on the Senate floor 37 years ago, I thought, "Well, we have at least come a long way."

And we have. After Bilbo, and despite a set of Southern Democratic senators who were more civil than he was but still tenaciously segregationist, Congress passed civil-rights bills in 1957 and 1964, and the landmark Voting Rights Act in 1965—thanks in large part to the efforts of Republican heroes like Bill McCulloch and Everett Dirksen. We have seen a sharp decline in racist attitudes, a widespread acceptance of interracial marriage, and many other salutary changes. But we are seeing vividly now that race remains a defining gulf in our society, despite remarkable progress over the past five decades.

Christopher Ingraham in The Washington Post recently showed a series of poll results reflecting major change. For example, in 1972, about two-thirds of whites said homeowners should be able to discriminate against blacks when selling their homes, but that was down to 28 percent in 2008. In 1988, two-thirds of whites said they would not be happy if a family member married a black person; that was down to 25 percent in 2008. Great progress, but the fact that over a quarter of whites still recently held racially prejudicial views is unsettling.

Americans of all stripes were justifiably proud when the country elected its first black president in 2008, and again when he was reelected in 2012. The fact is that no other comparable democracy, in Europe or elsewhere, was then or would now be prepared to elect a leader from a minority group. But even as I watched the celebrations on election night in November 2008, I felt an undercurrent of unease. Heartening as it was, this was not a sign that we had broken the back of racism or of racially driven divisions in the country. The election of an African-American president could be seen by racists in America as a sign that they could be more blunt in expressing their views. After all, who could now say America is racist? And the same mindset could lead others to enable statements or actions that would otherwise be seen as over the line. And, of course, the inevitable harsh criticism of a president by partisans on the other side, something that comes with the territory, could easily take on a racial dimension for Barack Obama.

It didn't take long for the latter phenomenon to emerge, with the birther movement, which on its face was ludicrous. To believe that Obama was not born in the United States meant that you had to believe that there had been a vast conspiracy 47 years earlier that included two Hawaiian newspapers that reported contemporaneously on his birth. A conspiracy, apparently, to enable a Kenyan-born Muslim plant smuggled in via Indonesia to be cultivated for decades as a Manchurian candidate to become president and destroy America as we know it. To be sure, delegitimizing a president has become a reality in the age of the permanent campaign—Bill Clinton, remember, was accused of being an accessory to murder—but to suggest that a president is a foreigner born in Africa takes it to a different level.

Over time, the hostility toward Obama grew dramatically, and so did racist statements. Actually, it did not take very long. One year into his presidency, ABC News catalogued an array of racially tinged and overtly racist statements or actions taken against Obama. They came from election and party officials and media figures, including Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. In the years since, the number of prominent figures using race as a wedge only grew. They include a New Hampshire police commissioner using the "N" word to refer to the president, a Montana federal district judge sending racist emails, and many others.

Most troubling is that some of the most loathsome comments have been enabled and legitimized. After Ted Nugent called the president of the United States a "subhuman mongrel"—a term CNN's Wolf Blitzer noted was used by the Nazis to justify the extermination of Jews—Texas gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott welcomed this incendiary and hateful figure at a campaign event. And Colorado Senate candidate Tom Tancredo excitedly announced that he had gotten Nugent to contribute one of his assault weapons for Tancredo to auction off to help finance his campaign.*

When Ann Coulter referred to the black president as a "monkey" for Vladimir Putin—one of the most vile terms to apply to an African American, a term that, when used without malice by the late Howard Cosell to refer to a football player, resulted in massive criticism and ultimate removal from Monday Night Football—Fox News host Sean Hannity was taken aback, albeit in a bemused way, and offered Coulter a chance to rephrase. She refused. Many conservatives criticized her for the remarks, but she was right back on Hannity's TV and radio shows without any hiatus or punishment.

Now, of course, racial divisions and the sharply different perceptions whites and nonwhites have about policing and fairness have come to the fore. We know from the most recent Pew Research Center survey that reactions to the Michael Brown and Eric Garner decisions are starkly different by race. On the Ferguson case, 64 percent of whites believe the grand jury made the right decision, while 80 percent of black respondents believe it was wrong. Sixty-four percent of blacks said race was a major factor in the decision, compared with 16 percent of whites. On the Staten Island case, the results were not as stark but still striking: 47 percent of whites said the grand jury made the wrong decision, as did 90 percent of blacks. The more general perceptions about police discrimination in behavior toward minorities show whites generally feeling police are fair, and nonwhites believing by large numbers that they discriminate against minorities.

As worrisome as anything is that our parties themselves are sorting out by race. Democrats find their support among whites—especially working-class whites—slipping, and that is not just an artifact of differential turnout in midterm contests. Especially in the South, white voters are moving steadily more toward voting for and identifying with the Republican Party, while nonwhites, even with a small uptick in some states for GOP votes for Senate and gubernatorial candidates, are heavily Democratic. Those divisions could change, of course, but right now it is possible to see a future where the GOP is clearly and distinctly a white party, while Democrats are clearly a majority-minority party.

I have written before about the increase in tribal identities among mass voters—sharp increases in the numbers of Democrats and especially Republicans who see those in the other party as a threat to the nation's well-being, and those who would feel uncomfortable if a family member married someone from the other party. Now layer tribal animosities over partisanship on top of the long-standing differences and frictions across racial lines. Not a great way to build a national identity, or to move from a Blue State and a Red State America to a United States of America.

Of course, it is more complicated and less threatening than that. The South is not simply becoming a Republican version of the racist post-Reconstruction Democratic-dominated region. Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, and even Texas are undergoing change in racial composition and voting power that will make many parts of the South competitive again, and will probably push the Republican Party to find ways via policy to broaden its appeal. The progress among whites in reducing racially divisive attitudes—something noted eloquently by Chris Rock—is likely to continue. But the fact is that the spate of police killings of black males, following on the Trayvon Martin case, brings to the fore a set of different experiences and different perceptions across racial lines that are combustible, and that are magnified and amplified by the partisan divisions that follow along similar lines. When a Rudy Giuliani puts the fault back on the black community, it does not help. An African-American president and an African-American attorney general simultaneously help resolve conflicts and reduce tensions while being exploited by partisans and racists to exacerbate them.

Race has always been, and probably always will be, a critical fault line in our society and democracy. It is a major challenge for Republican leaders to find ways—not with a few symbols or gestures, but through real sensitivity and policy reforms—to both reduce racial tensions and to appeal to more nonwhite Americans. And it is an immense challenge for Obama—a historic figure, the first African-American president, not simply the first president of and for African Americans—to build broad bridges and trust that keep the coming tremors low on the Richter scale.

* This post originally stated that Ted Nugent made his comments at an event for Greg Abbott and late appeared at a second event with Abbott. We regret the error.