It is Martin Luther King Day, 2016, and this is how things are in America:
We face no existential threat. Gas prices are way down. So is violent crime. The stock market has doubled in the last seven years. Unemployment has been halved. Job creation is ticking along. We have a nuclear treaty with Iran and an embassy in Cuba.
Does the country face real and serious problems? Of course it does. But on balance, things are ... not bad, especially considering where they were not so long ago.
Yet to hear the Republican candidates jockeying for their party’s presidential nomination tell it, America is in the worst shape it has ever been, overrun by Muslim terrorists, religious freedoms curtailed, gun rights abridged, moral decay rampant, military enfeebled, economy in tatters, prestige on life support.
Yes, it is an opposition candidate’s job to paint a dire picture; it’s how you make the case for your own election. But the shrill, overwrought picture the Republicans paint is hardly politics as usual. Rather, in its utter disconnection from empirical reality, it is of a piece with the GOP’s eight year panic attack over the election - and re-election - of the nation’s first African-American president.
Barack Obama, said the Republicans and their enablers, was a foreign-born interloper. They called him “uppity” and “boy.” They heckled him during a joint session of Congress. They said he was “lazy” and a “thug.” They said he was an ape and a “subhuman mongrel.” They said he hates America.
And then they turn around and with a straight face, complain that Obama has “divided the country.” By what? Existing? One is reminded of the husband who complains to his battered wife: “You make me hit you.”
Geraldo Rivera got it almost right last week. “The nation,” he said, “was not ready for a black president.”
This was on a Fox “News” segment previewing Obama’s State of the Union Address. The indictment was overly broad, but there was a kernel of truth in it worth teasing out. You see, it wasn’t “the nation” that wasn’t ready for a black president; Obama won the popular vote twice. It wasn’t even white people; young whites figured prominently in his coalition.
You know who wasn’t “ready” for Obama? Older white conservatives. And even that’s not as cut-and-dried as it sounds. After all, they likely would have been happy enough with a black president who abided by the unwritten rules of black conservatism — i.e., don’t remind us you’re black by suggesting that black people have any moral claim on the American conscience. Thus, they cheered for Herman Cain, a black man who thought “Cuban” was a language. And they roar for Ben Carson, a black man who thinks Hamas is something you put on pita bread.
These men are “safe” in that they do not speak the language of black lament. But Obama, who speaks that language fluently, albeit rarely and reluctantly,outrages white conservatives.
For the record, Martin Luther King outraged them, too, and for the same reason. Don’t let the holiday and the universal acclaim fool you. Anyone who acknowledges that freedom is unfinished business is always an outrage to white conservatives.
Indeed, if they were not ready for a black president in 2008, it is helpful to remember that they were also not ready for school desegregation in 1954, desegregation of city buses in 1955, desegregation of interstate busing in 1961, desegregation of public facilities in 1964, voting rights in 1965, interracial marriage in 1967.
They are never ready for change in the moment it happens. Indeed, resistance to change is what defines them.
Barack Obama seems to have finally figured that out, seems to finally get that it’s neither his policies nor his programs many white conservatives find most objectionable, but his paint job and all it portends for the loss of white primacy and prerogative. Many of them, perhaps most, probably have no conscious awareness of feeling this way; their resistance is subliminal, but that doesn’t make it any less real.
Obama was the last person in the country to understand this; but now that he does, he makes few legislative requests of Congress and governs more by executive action. You get tired of reaching out the open hand of bipartisanship only to draw back the bloody stump of obstructionism.
“The nation was not ready for a black president,” says Rivera. And you wonder, what does that even mean? What are we supposed to do about that? Shall we wait until white conservatives are ready? Shall we defer hopes and dreams and change until they pronounce themselves prepared to deal with them?
That’s a recipe for stasis. Martin Luther King taught us to fight stasis. In fact, he criticized “the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills.”
And he reminded America of “the fierce urgency of now.”
And he warned that “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.”
The white conservatives Rivera mischaracterizes as “the nation” would be well advised to take that to heart, because the struggle goes on, because “now” retains its fierce urgency. And because the lesson of the last seven years is a simple one, albeit one often lost in the cacophony of their panicked wailing.
Change comes. Being ready has nothing to do with it.