Belief

Why Conservatives Are Really Afraid of a Black President

The president reminds Glenn Beck, and those who identify with his white neo-nationalism, of the lie of their own professed superiority.

... in Obama's America, the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering, "Yay, right on, right on, right on, right on," and, of course, everybody says the white kid deserved it, he was born a racist, he's white. Newsweek magazine told us this. We know that white students are destroying civility on buses, white students destroying civility in classrooms all over America, white congressmen destroying civility in the House of Representatives. -- Rush Limbaugh,
Sept. 15, 2009

Ever the statesman, and often candid to a political fault, former President Jimmy Carter said recently that much of the animosity directed toward President Barack Obama is "based on the fact that he is a black man."

A lifelong Southerner, Carter acknowledged that the inclination of racism still exists, and that "it has bubbled up to the surface because of the belief among many white people, not just in the South but around the country, that African Americans are not qualified to lead this great country."

Though courageous, the former president's pronouncement will surely be considered controversial to many Republicans and Democrats alike. Some will view Carter's comments as politically inexpedient.

The topic of race in general, and charges of racism in particular, is political dynamite that typically explodes in the hands of the accuser -- just ask [Harvard] Professor Skip Gates, [New York] Gov. David Paterson, or Obama (whom I will return to momentarily).

Unless someone is wearing a Klan hood while yelling, "Nigger, Go Back to Africa," the charge of racism seems to offend the accused these days more than the actual victims.

This is true, in part, due to the most prevalent view of the problem of race and racism in this country. In the eyes of many, the responsibility of moving beyond racial conflict in America is placed at the feet of minority communities of color, as opposed to the dominant society.

We've all heard it. America will move beyond race to a colorblind society only when minority groups cease dwelling on difference. Such a view permeates the melting pot ideal of American folklore, the myth of meritocracy and even the "post-racial" dimension of electoral politics.

Thus, for Carter to call out this segment of the white community, he is disrupting the conspiracy of silence concerning racial injustice that demands the allegiance of politicians on the national scene.

Think about it. Is this not the racial bargain that Obama accepted to become the nation's first African American president? Matters pertaining to race have been avoided unless absolutely necessary (cough, cough, the Rev. [Jeremiah] Wright).

And in terms of policy, obstacles faced by any particular group, like disproportionate unemployment among communities of color, for example, are obfuscated by anemic and ineffectual broad-based prescriptions. Rising tides lift all boats, right?

Yet Obama's enormous success in life, whether as a highly educated community organizer or as America's commander in chief, exposes the paradox this sort of faux post-racialism presents.

It's a one-sided deal for people of color; as "post-racial" in effect means post-black, post-brown, post-red and post-yellow, while leaving the normative racial framework of whiteness intact. Race is the challenge people of color must confront and, dare I say, "get over."

But a post-racial America does not demand the same of those who identify with, and claim the social construction of, whiteness and perceived privileges and cultural superiority therein.

This is why, it would seem, Obama's body standing behind the American presidential seal has a critical segment of America losing its hold on reality -- a reality, I would argue, few have ever been forced to acknowledge up to this point.

Whether it's the birthers, tea-baggers, deathers, indoctrinators, or "You lie!"-ers, they have neither veiled their racial animus nor cloaked their white nationalism. The prevalence of racist images of Obama brandished by protesters juxtaposed with calls of "taking our country back" are reminiscent of D.W. Griffith's fictional America as depicted in the film Birth of a Nation.

And the pride with which this segment of society has rallied the troops around its shared sense of whiteness reveals that their skin color is the one true object of pledged allegiance and determinant of professed patriotism. [See "Unregulated Capitalism and Christian Fervor: Report from the 9/12 Rally at the Capitol" from Sept. 17.]

Herein lies Carter's perceptive point. Obama can't win with these folks, because they are blinded not just by his race but also by an uncritical devotion to their own. His pigmentation rather than his policies cut against the grain of what these persons wrongly consider "natural" or "American."

More specifically, his very being is a haunting rejoinder to such white Americans of what they are not -- indeed what they have never been. This African American man with an Arabic name has dared to usurp all of the cultural and cognitive tropes that white supremacy has historically claimed for itself. He is calm in the face of their unrestrained emotion. The more illogical they act, the more rational he comes across. And, of course, the more eloquent and erudite he presents himself, the more he provokes the Joe Wilsons of the world to mindlessly blurt out, "You lie!"

In the process, Obama has transformed such opponents into the racial other, an uneducated and uncultured blob of white (and largely Southern) backwardness that is beyond the pale of social redemption or acculturation. Wilson and the remaining Sons of Confederate Veterans have, in effect, become this "black man's burden."

Maybe this helps explain Glenn Beck's ridiculous yet probably heartfelt assertion that the president has a "deep-seated hatred for white people."

The president reminds Beck, along with those who identify with Beck's form of white neo-nationalism, of the lie of their own professed superiority -- a place of comfort and privilege in America that was neither deserved nor ever attained, yet still claimed based on the pinkness of their skin and straightness of hair. Obama's apparent success only further dismantles this lie and pours salt in socially insecure wounds.

Similar can be said of those who need the president to be Adolf Hitler. If Obama is Hitler, that means protestors can liken themselves unto the Jews; only this time it's a victimized-yet-devout group of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who want nothing more than to restore a nation that God, or more appropriately, Jefferson Davis, decreed as divinely their own.

The ability to make such ludicrous claims on conservative radio, Fox News, and on Capitol Hill, however, represents the kind of power that they unduly still possess. As tasteless as Wilson's heckling of the president was, it still takes an immense level of privilege to be a jerk on the floor of Congress.

My point here is simply that the problem of race in America has never been solely or predominantly a minority issue. It is first and foremost, as Carter said, a problem of whiteness.

Just as racial segregation in Wilson's fond memories of idyllic South Carolina was less about black people but a matter of white phobia, the lie of whiteness projects its fears upon minority bodies like the president's in hopes of maintaining its own unhealthy and unrealistic sense of being in charge.

This is why James Baldwin rightly suggested years ago that "the vast amount of the energy that goes into what we call the 'Negro problem' is produced by the white man's profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white."

I believe this applies to our current president and his most vocal critics. If he is framed as the foreigner, incarnate evil and indoctrinating Nazi, many won't have to acknowledge that he may just be smart, sophisticated and a devout patriot. God forbid.

And if he is, what does that make them?

Jonathan L. Walton is assistant professor of religious studies at the University of California, Riverside. He teaches courses in African American religion; religion, media and culture; and religion and political discourse. His new book is, Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Religious Broadcasting (New York University Press).