Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Barack Obama’s election as the first black president was supposed to usher in a golden “post-racial” age but instead was met with racial conflict, a battle Obama failed, in his role as conciliator-in-chief, to either predict or control. The conflict has blossomed into a war, producing Donald Trump’s racial-angst-fueled campaign and the anger of Black Lives Matter protesters. At the heart of this racial conflict is Obama’s divisive presidency.
If that storyline sounds familiar, it’s the tack that many analyses have taken as they try to tease apart the interconnected issues of race and politics. It’s an exercise––an important one––that writers attempt every few months. Two years ago, commentators chronicled “unrest over race” in Obama’s legacy, and even before that speculated at racial tensions or unrest that might ensue should he ever lose an election. One recent column by Peniel Joseph in the Washington Post chronicles Obama’s failure to stop the “open warfare” of racial conflict during his term in office.
One reason these attempts to grapple with race and Obama’s presidency recur so often is that they usually can’t quite pull together a unified theory. Perhaps the moving pieces are just too complicated to analyze while they are still moving; perhaps they appear deceptively simple. But maybe some of the difficulty in talking about race today is attributable to the unhelpful euphemisms of “racial conflict,” “racial tension,” and other phrases that suggest an equal amount of instigation across racial groups, if not a perfectly balanced battle. But not all “racial conflicts” or “racially fraught” sentiments are the same. Equating them even via casual euphemism dilutes the potency of a truth that has undergirded every aspect of American society for as long as American society has existed.
It is tempting to try to conceptualize American culture as a theater of war, with battles fought between well-equipped factions over the future of the dominant identity. This conceptualization of political conflict animates arguments about everything from political correctness on college campuses to the tensions at the heart of Bernie Sanders’s political revolution. And at some level, especially when discussing differing factions of white men, it works. But the idea of political conflict as a pitched battle proves inadequate when it fails to take into account the power gradients that have been woven into the fabric of the country. That is especially true of race.
Race in America is not really a fight between opposing sides, but a long and drawn-out occupation by which black people and other minorities were used for their value, and otherwise steamrolled or excluded. A colleague of mine calls that system “plunder.” On occasion, some groups have been allowed into the city on the hill of whiteness, but on the condition that they shut the gates behind them. Unspecified, vague claims of “racial conflict” run the risk of legitimizing that gatekeeping as a natural reaction to the anger of those who find the gate shut in their faces.
When viewed through this lens, Obama’s election and reelection represented not a logical endpoint for racial conflict, nor even a sign that the occupation is over, but a promising proof-of-concept for discussing that occupation. Obama’s candidacy in 2008 was the beginning—not the end—of a new wave of black and brown organizing. It came just as the mirage of progress lifted and the centuries-old sinews of exploitation and exclusion were revealed again. The racist backlash and gatekeeping appeared first and most often as opposition to Obama, the most visible emblem of the organizing power of people of color. As Jamelle Bouie at Slate aptly notes, that racist reaction set off a chain of events that now sees Donald Trump––a candidate who peddles racism as a first order––as the presumptive Republican nominee and will likely see the party coalesce around him, #NeverTrump sentiments be damned.
Obama could never have been both the post-racial harmonizer and the racial equalizer that many analysts seem to have expected. “Racial conflict,” like more polite euphemisms, suggests a grand poetic struggle between groups and ideas— a negotiator like Obama should’ve been able to broker a peace. But in reality, addressing institutional racism tends to intensify societal racism; promoting interracial conciliation and promoting racial equality are often antithetical. This has always been the central issue at the core of “racial conflict” in America, from the backlash during Reconstruction to outrage about the Voting Rights Act. There is a much better word for what Obama has been confronted with, and it has always sufficed: racism.