In March of 2008 at the height of his Democratic primary electoral campaign for president, then-Senator Barack Obama gave a speech entitled “A More Perfect Union.” This speech later became known simply as “The Race Speech.” For the myopic, the speech was an attempt to explain Obama’s affiliation with lightning-rod preacher Jeremiah Wright who had been castigated by the media as anti-American and racist. But, as most commentators came to note, the speech was really about something larger. It was about America’s negative racial past and the hope and promise of a better racial future. It was about moving past America’s “racial stalemate” in order to bring about a stronger, more united America. And once Barack Obama was elected president that November, many people believed that his symbolic presidency would be the beginning of America’s more perfect, color-blind union.
Three years, several Tea Party rallies, one Donald Trump and an 80% rise in anti-immigrant hate groups later, it is now clear that the U.S. has not reached that perfect union. In fact, many would argue that racial tension is even worse now than before his historic election, particularly in our politics.
Race is and has always been political. From the 3/5ths compromise to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ “high-tech lynching,” race has been (ab)used in our political dialogue and policy making. Race-neutral policies (such as welfare and health care reform) are coded with racial undertones in order to serve as symbols for a racially-attuned electorate. And explicitly racial policies (affirmative action) are criticized by many politicians who insist America is racially-blind but fail to see the way in which race-baiting and racism operate in corporations, schools, and even their very own halls of Congress.
Recently, racial and xenophobic fear has been the tide that has kept afloat a good number of potential Republican candidates for president, as my colleague Lumumba Seegars noted in his recent PolicyMic article. While the Democratic Party is not immune to racial politics (e.g. Bill Clinton’s comments after Obama’s South Carolina primary win; Geraldine Ferraro’s comments about Obama’s race being a factor in his electoral success), it has been extreme members of the Republican Party who have been the lead players in the racial game this time around.
And the most mind-numbingly fantastic thing about this current climate of vitriol and division is that many of the people who are driving it are the same people who once agreed with Obama, once insisted that America must move past racial divisiveness and animosity. Former Governor Mike Huckabee, three years ago a near-defender of Jeremiah Wright and a sympathizer with those blacks who still resent historical discrimination, is now tip-toeing the fringes of birtherism. And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who immediately praised Obama’s speech as courageous and insisted that we should have a “serious conversation on our country’s future,” is now theorizing that Obama’s “behavior” is a result of his “Kenyan, anti-colonial” mindset.
It is clear that this racial climate has much to do with politics; yet, America is now at a fundamental crossroads in its history as a nation – a crossroads that necessitates that we leave this racial political game behind. Not only do we have the first black president, but also minority groups are increasing as a percentage of the population. In the most recent census, minorities accounted for 92% of our nation’s population increase over the past decade and Hispanics led that growth, growing 43%. At this crucial time in our history as a nation, we have to decide if we will continue to play racial politics and divide up even larger parts of our country in an attempt to gain electoral victory based upon our most debased instinct – fear – or, if we will move past race-baiting by acknowledging historical discrimination, finding ways to rectify that harm and looking toward a future in which race is no longer used in a divisive, immutable manner.
In his 2008 speech, Obama acknowledged that race has been an integral part of American history. And as a result, racial animosity could not be solved in “a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy - particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.” Yet, he still professed a hope and belief that his presidency and this moment in American history would serve to move us past some of our “racial wounds.” In retrospect, it would be easy to argue that his hope was premature, or even, naïve. Yet, his hope was predicated upon the expectation that Americans would fight these lingering racial issues together – black and white, Republican and Democrat. So far, this collective struggle toward a better future has not happened. Until we stop the race-baiting and divisiveness, our country will lay fallow – far from the more perfect union we all deserve.
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