Anti-Obama demonstrators in Arizona taunted the president of the United States with racial slurs in Arizona this past Tuesday, the 50th anniversary of the historic Voting Rights Act. The sight of hundreds of protesters proudly raising hate-filled signs echoed anti-civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s, but with an ironic twist.
Obama traveled to Arizona as part of a monthlong series of speeches promoting the economy. At Delta Vista High School in Phoenix, the president unveiled policy recommendations to jump-start the American housing industry. Outside, a boisterous group of protesters sang, “Bye, Bye, Black Sheep,” and waved signs that said, “Impeach the Half-White Muslim.” According to the Arizona Republic, some demonstrators accused Obama of fanning national racial tensions. One protester characterized the president as “47 percent Negro” in a racist play on Mitt Romney’s offensive comments denouncing almost half the nation as freeloaders who helped deny him the White House.
This naked display of racism supports Obama’s recent public admission that America has yet to enter a postracial era. The nation’s first black president — the symbolic and elected leader of our democracy — is still reviled by many white Americans solely because of his skin color. This makes Barack Obama a singular unique case in American history: the first black man ever to be racially profiled for winning the presidency.
Obama’s 2008 election inspired optimistic predictions that race mattered less in American life than at any other point in the nation’s history. Yet from almost the start of his presidency, Obama has been dogged by racially motivated criticism. Much of these attacks connected the president’s policy proposals, most notably the Affordable Care Act, to his personal and political biography.
The Tea Party combined skepticism about Obama’s patriotism, citizenship and political motivations with an unfettered rage against increased taxes embedded in the president’s health care plan. Tea Party rallies that proliferated soon after Obama assumed office were marked by racially charged rhetoric that highlighted the president’s skin color and multicultural background (especially his father’s African heritage) as proof of his inauthenticity.
The Birther movement took this one step further, meticulously crafting a conspiracy theory that alleged that Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate had been forged. This narrative argued that since Kenya was Obama’s real place of birth, he was ineligible to be president. Obama’s very presence as commander in chief continues to ignite racial passions that, in their starkest forms, echo the white supremacist and antiblack rhetoric associated with the heyday of the civil rights era.
The racism on display in Arizona is disappointing but should not discourage Americans from delving into the roots behind such protest. The hard work of democracy requires a national conversation about race in America to assess the progress achieved during the past half-century.
American race relations have always proceeded in fits and starts. Every successful piece of legislation passed in pursuit of racial equality has been met with massive resistance by white Americans. But of late, progress has proved itself even more uneven. Part of this stems from a willful denial of the existence, let alone persistence, of institutional racism in America.
Racial segregation’s stubborn endurance in public schools, neighborhoods and social activities remains at the heart of contemporary America’s political and cultural divisions. Race continues to be the third rail of national politics. Racial denial is both unfortunate and shortsighted. Our national failure to openly confront racial inequality 50 years after major civil rights legislation is crippling American democracy.
The president’s political strategy on race matters has been largely one of avoidance. Recent events, however, have overwhelmed this strategy. National demonstrations in the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict forced Obama to speak candidly about the black community’s anger over Trayvon Martin’s death. Obama’s willingness to discuss racism, civil rights and race relations during an impromptu address to the White House press marked one of the most important unscripted moments of his presidency.
But for many whites it confirmed their worst fears about Obama. The contemporary belief that to even broach the topic of race makes one a racist considers Obama’s comments about Trayvon to be divisive and inflammatory. Colorblind racism finds comfort in a dream world of racial denial, while offering no solutions for the real-world racial disparities that surround us.
The president’s upcoming March on Washington anniversary speech offers the unique opportunity to candidly acknowledge the nation’s racial divisions while offering policy recommendations that could promote dialogue, understanding and healing. Some have defended the president’s reluctance to speak openly about race in America as the sage choice of a politician. Yet since race continues to touch every aspect of American life, ignoring its presence is both politically and morally irresponsible.
Once again, Arizona has been the site for teaching tough lessons about race and democracy. In this case the state has forcefully reminded Obama and the rest of the nation that ignoring race in America is a difficult task and sometimes, especially for the president of the United States, virtually impossible to do.
Peniel E. Joseph is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University.