Whatever happened to that “post-racial” America we were supposed to be living in?
Whatever happened to those warm and fuzzy feelings we got when we elected America’s first black president?
Whatever happened to being so proud of ourselves for having bridged the racial divide?
Didn’t last very long.
Today, America does not seem to be very post-racial or very united, “teachable moments” not withstanding. Just about a year ago, we were able to laugh about things that don’t seem very funny today.
In July of 2008, the New Yorker ran a cover depicting Obama and Michelle standing in the Oval Office with an American flag burning in the fireplace and a portrait of Osama bin Laden hanging on the wall. Obama was dressed in traditional Muslim clothing, including a turban. Michelle was sporting a huge Afro, wearing camouflage trousers with combat boots and shouldering a Kalashnikov assault rifle with a bandolier of bullets. The two were bumping fists.
The cover succeeded (at least to me) in being so absurd that it poked fun of the people who believed the Obamas were dangerous, traitorous or foreign. As David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, said at that time, the cover “combines a number of fantastical images about the Obamas and shows them for the obvious distortions they are.”
Today, those “obvious distortions” plus new ones get serious hearings on talk radio and cable TV. Today, posters mysteriously appear on the streets of Los Angeles depicting Obama as the white-faced Joker from Batman with the single word “socialism” beneath his face.
Where’s the love? Not that long ago, it seemed to be everywhere. In April of this year, on a two-day trip to Turkey, Obama was asked at town meeting why, since his election, Americans were “proud” of their country once again.
Obama’s reply was very instructive because it raised an issue he addressed only rarely in the campaign: that voting for him was a redemptive act, a way for Americans to show themselves and the world that they were a better people and a better country.
“I come from a racial minority; my name is very unusual for the United States,” Obama replied in Turkey. “And so I think people saw my election as proof, as testimony, that although we are imperfect, our society has continued to improve; that racial discrimination has been reduced; that educational opportunity for all people is something that is still available.”
Today, however, “birthers” claim that Obama is not an American at all and that his election, far from showing proof of anything noble about America, shows merely that Obama is an alien who successfully hid himself among us for years.
And Obama’s comments regarding the Cambridge police department and the arrest of professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. released reactions that seem over the top even in the world of talk TV. Glenn Beck, a popular commentator for Fox News, said: “This president, I think, has exposed himself as a guy, over and over and over again, who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture, I don’t know what it is. I’m not saying that he doesn’t like white people. I’m saying he has a problem. This guy is, I believe, a racist.”
So much for post-racial America.
But how did things turn around so fast? They didn’t. They may never have turned in the first place.
Largely overlooked in the understandably good feelings generated by the election of our first black president was the simple fact that white America did not vote for him.
Most white Americans voted for John McCain. In fact, Barack Obama lost the white vote in 2008 by a landslide. While Obama won the overall vote by 53 percent to 46 percent, he lost among white voters by 55 percent to 43 percent.
Whenever I give speeches and mention that no Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson has won the white vote, I always see some head shaking in the audience, as if that could not possibly be true.
But it is. Three Democrats have become president since Lyndon Johnson — Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Obama — but none of them has won a majority of white votes.
How did they become president? By picking up enough white votes along with enough minority votes to build a winning coalition. In Obama’s case, he got 43 percent of the white vote, 95 percent of the black vote, 67 percent of the Latino vote and 62 percent of the Asian vote.
During the campaign, Obama downplayed race. (He was forced into making his now-famous race speech in Philadelphia by the repugnant comments of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, not because Obama wanted to make a speech on race.) The Obama campaign constantly said America was changing and that younger Americans had moved beyond race.
That could be true. Among white voters aged 18-29, Obama won by a margin of 54 percent to 44 percent.
It would be absurd to say that everybody who voted against Obama is a racist (and just because exit polls divide people into racial groups does not mean people cast their votes for racial reasons).
But it also may be absurd, or at least prematurely optimistic, to say we are living in a post-racial America, where divides have been bridged, gaps closed and wounds healed.
We are not. We may be getting there. But there are going to be bumps in the road and mountains yet to climb.