The Thin Veil of Racism: The Burden of the Obama Presidency

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Our centrist President is in trouble. Not so much for his policies or attempts at turning the Titanic—called our healthcare system—around, but because he is Black. In essence, he must first slog through our country’s collective unnamable, even unknowable, fear of change that he represents as well as the thinly veiled racism that is at the heart of the recent normalization of fringe element characterizations such as “socialist president.” Jimmy Carter sees through the veil and made a public statement about racism and this presidency, but he has been met with the typical response of “how dare you say that about me.”

But Carter speaks the truth. Some day in the future people far more astute than myself will write dissertations on the subject of race and this presidency. Right now, as we are all on the stage of “live T.V.” with our instant technology it is difficult to peek behind the veil of racism as such efforts of unpacking what pervades even the air we breathe take both time and distance. And yet, there is a pattern of aggression built on our nation’s racist legacy that is at the heart of the trend of relentless, dogged attempts to dismantle this nine-month-old Presidency.

It all came to a head with the “You Lie” incident during the 9/10 healthcare reform speech to the joint session of Congress. It is hard to imagine if Obama was a white President, that a congressman would have so broken with United States tradition and cat-called from the floors of the hallowed halls. In fact, multiple people felt that the last President was lying about our reasons for invading Iraq (much subsequently proven as lies) and yet no one broke with two centuries of this nation’s precedent of respect for the Office of the President to heckle Mr. Bush from the floor of Congress. No, such precedent was broken because the standing President happens to be Black and knowing or unknowingly for some people, therefore, not worthy of the respect that has been due the 43 presidents that have preceeded him.

The “You Lie” incident follows on the swell of ill-will building from the “was he really born in this country” fringe element who just cannot see reason in the face of an actual birth certificate (you know they just don’t trust the records of that almost “foreign” state comprised of majority people of color called Hawai’i) and the nonsensical, also factless chant/rant of the “socialist president.” At first laughable, the relentless repeating of certain mantras on right-rant-radio that is picked up within days by centrist media coverage creates a cultural normalization that results in a basically centrist President being perceived as socialist. Well, socialist is just code for pejoratively meant “black,” just as much as “pushy New Yorker” is code for Jew. In both cases the “sayers” can do their damage in a veiled way without fear of being called out as racist or anti-Semitic.

When people refuse to accept actual fact and base arguments more purely on emotion, when a Congressman actually loses his grip and breaks two centuries of decorum there are powerful social forces at work. In this case that social force is the collective social-binder of thinly veiled racism. It is veiled because of the pervasive, insidiousness of racism that does not go away because a black man is president (or the chair of our nonprofit board, for that matter). It is veiled in this instance because there is a groundswell of micro events and activities (he’s not born here, he’s a socialist, he’s a liar) that our unconsciously complicit media builds into a macro normalization of how we see the world. These normalizations make it nearly impossible to uncover the root cause of the fear/racism that makes people think, say and behave and shape our context in the face of all facts.

If people who care about our civil society do not begin challenging what may seem like fringe attacks that are below our notice or whacked out name-calling and do not challenge these micro-aggressions for what they are at their most basic level of intent—fear of change under-girded by our society’s shared, though veiled racism—then we have failed at an even deeper level of working across difference that for which the President actually calls. No matter one’s politics, socialism is not a dirty word but it is being cleverly used to derail a Presidency. In polite society or in our social analysis, particularly political analysis by the media, it seems we can no longer say that racism might be at the root of certain behaviors, mostly because it is hard to prove something that simply is so thoroughly woven through ourselves and our society’s essence—you either see partially through the veil or you don’t.

The work of those who see through the veil, even imperfectly, is to raise the critical question about the underlying intent of our own and others’ words and behaviors—is it rooted in fact or in factless fear of the power of “other.” Our national debate on healthcare, recession recovery, war, education, criminal justice, housing, basic human rights, the environment, the role of arts and humanities in our understanding of ourselves and world (for here is where the intractable, pervasive social norms are sometimes impossible to rationally discuss, get “seen” or understood in the flash of a line of poetry or a stroke on the canvass)* will be continuously derailed if we do not call-out those who so far are very successfully normalizing these debates into a dismantling of the Black President, not based on fact, but on fear and or the more cynical use of fear tactics.

*I had thought that a more lucid explanation of what I am trying to say here may have been more simply expressed in a painting of Obama nailed to a burning crucifix.