Like the Chinese curse, we live in interesting times. The presidential election held last year resulted in the first African-American president, Barack Hussein Obama. Traditionally, United States Presidents have been white, wealthy, and Christian; Barack Obama is only two of these. This election gives us both hope and concern. It is truly unique when any nation elects a minority leader. Yet, Barack Obama’s campaign was beset with controversy that plagued him from day one, and this continues to this day. First, I will discuss his unique campaign. Second, I will discuss the issues that have been problematic for the current president, who is causing these problems, and whence they originate. Third, we will discuss who is taking advantage of racial divisions. As cultural schisms in America are nothing new, we will trace today’s issues to their roots, even long before this nation was founded. Let us review Barack Obama’s challenges to becoming president.
The Trials of Obama
Born in Hawaii to an American mother and Kenyan father, Obama had little of the special advantages that one considers necessary to become president of this nation. George W. Bush, for example, had a former president father and a wealthy family. Barack Obama was therefore something of a surprise in the 2008 elections. Long before his campaign was officially started, many people believed he was exactly what was needed after eight years of often failed Bush policies. The problem for Obama was how to get elected. He had the advantage of running as a Democratic candidate after an unsuccessful Republican presidency, as did his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. However, Obama was able to present himself as cool and collected compared to the sometimes ruffled Clinton. He had a skilled campaign manager, David Plouffe, who used a unique “50-state strategy” to get the needed votes. The problem for his opponents quickly became how to stop the momentum that Obama was so rapidly gaining. At first, the chosen issue was his inexperience. Compared to Clinton and the Republican nominee, John McCain, this was a justified critique. This argument dissolved with the nomination of Governor Sarah Palin as the Republican Vice Presidential candidate. She had only served as governor of Alaska for a short time when she was nominated. After that, the arguments against Obama became less substantial.
Among these arguments was Obama’s association with former convicted terrorist Bill Ayers. The Republican campaign tried to state that Obama had started his presidential campaign in Ayers’ living room. Obama spent little time dwelling on the issue; it lost traction. Another topic was his birth certificate. Despite the publication of Obama’s Certificate of Live Birth, and the notification in the local newspaper of that birth, many believed that Obama was not born in the United States, making him ineligible for election to the office of president. This is an odd belief but one that many still hold on to. Another issue, although a slightly smaller one, was the picture of Obama in a turban. Despite the appropriateness of this garb in the circumstance, people believed that it meant he was a secret Muslim. This issue helped to elucidate some of the reasons that people were willing to believe the earlier oddities.
I’m not aware of any other presidential candidate being asked to prove his native-born citizenship. It is rare for any public official to be accused of links to terrorism, especially in today’s age of real concern with this issue. It is especially unlikely that any other politician would be charged with faking his religion, despite repeated instances where politician’s actions belie their true beliefs, as in the case of recently disgraced South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford. If we presume that these accusations are unique, then what about Obama makes them acceptable? One can conclude that Obama’s race has made these attacks permissible in our modern political system.
This might seem like a shocking thing to say. When I first began to come to this conclusion I felt it was a radical thought. However, since I first began to contemplate this possibility, many leading politicians and pundits have reached the same conclusion. Most notable of these is former president Jimmy Carter, who stated rather plainly that “many white people… [believe] that African-Americans are not qualified to lead this great country.” Protestors have been spotted at events such as the 9/12 protests organized by Glenn Beck carrying signs that all but advocate assassinating the president, and several people have brought guns to presidential events; these are symptoms of their fear and concern at being led by a black president.
The president has faced strong opposition from certain sectors of American society on almost every single one of his initiatives since the day he took office. Even the oath of office that Obama took was called into question so vehemently that one conservative claimed that he was not sure that we had a president. The day after the inauguration Obama fulfilled a campaign promise and signed the order to close down Guantanamo Bay base in Cuba. “Gitmo” is home to suspected terrorists, although most have never had a formal trial and are held under dubious evidence. This action caused many Republicans to ask where these suspects were going to go, stating that they would not allow them to be held in their districts; these same prisons hold domestic terrorists and murderers whose evil rivals that of the worst Gitmo detainee.
Health Care and Entitlement
The longest battle thus far for this administration has been about health care reform. This is especially odd concerning that some 80% of Americans think it is necessary, the fact that America’s health care is among the worst and most expensive in the world, the consensus among advanced nations that health is a right and not a privilege, and the viability of universal health care paid for by taxes. America is no stranger to this idea; we use taxes to pay for things that we feel are rights such as roads, fire protection, police, and schooling. With a myriad of reasons why health care reform is a good idea, why the opposition?
Racial distinction has made people fear Obama. This situation is worsened by the fact that certain politicians see this as an opportunity to advance their needs while exploiting the fears that some people have about an African-American president. As a result, these politicians exploit the racism and oppose Obama on issues such as health care. Ordinary Americans have expressed fear about the direction their nation is headed, about socialism, and about Obama’s takeover of the nation. This is a particularly absurd idea considering that the government’s role is to control the nation. Some people, who have refer to themselves as the Tea Party, have gone so far as to protest taxes. Certain protestors can be seen protesting not just taxes spent on unjustified wars, or taxes spent on unnecessary government spending, but all taxes. These people can often be seen protesting on federal or state parks, which they get to by driving on DOT maintained roads. Hypocrisy is lost on these people.
In an attempt to find a common thread amongst the protestors themselves, one can take a quick look at the average anti-tax protest crowd and see few minorities. These crowds are almost all white, middle class Americans. The sentiment of these protests seems to be strongest in conservative and Southern communities. These segments of our population are known for their intolerance of other races; this does help to put things in perspective. These are groups of people who have been known to be untrusting of or even hate government and people of color. The fact that these are one and the same may be something of a convenience.
I should point out that I am not suggesting that all people who are against health care reform or taxes are racist. There are real issues with the idea of health care reform: who decides what is fair, how will medical companies and doctors make money if costs are kept low by a public option, how will people afford health care if it is mandatory, and so on. However, I am concerned by those who clearly demonstrate a hatred or fear of Obama because of race.
This sentiment’s origins may not be easy to trace. Slavery is determined by many to be the source of racism in this nation. It is a significant factor when one considers that for hundreds of years a race was felt to be inferior strictly because of their skin. However, the real reason stretches back not hundreds of years but thousands.
Prior to the fall of Egyptian civilization, it was not uncommon to see people of very different beliefs and cultures cooperate. That is not to say that there were no wars. However, around the time of the foundation of monotheistic religion something changed. A distinction was created, the Mosaic Distinction, and people became more concrete in their beliefs. It became common for one to “know” the truth, and to feel that all others were wrong.
As this idea spread from a religious conviction to other facets of life, the concept of racism began. One could consider this an over-generalization of the belief in religious intolerance to a belief in racial intolerance, in much the same way that Freud saw many religious conventions as over-generalizations of taboos such as incest. Mankind sadly developed a belief that those that are different from us are scary, evil, bad, wrong, or something to fear. Freud stated that religion was a neurosis. If he saw the current situation in America, he would feel that racism is also a neurosis.
This belief is a holdover of ancient man and has no place in modern society. Worse, the logical concerns of some protestors we see today are being subverted by those who use these concerns as an excuse to exercise their deep-seated fear of an African-American president. The single most concerning thing about all of this, more concerning than the racism which will doubtless take generations to dissipate, is that this is being taken advantage of. Conservative commentators like Glenn Beck are fanning the flames of hatred in an effort to garner ratings.
In summary, today’s political debate is a unique one indeed. Barack Obama has faced criticisms and controversy unlike any president so far. He is receiving this sort of treatment as a result of his race. This racial divide can be traced as far back as the Mosaic Distinction of old, and the gradual evolution of this distinction from religion to race. We live in an incredibly advanced age, and it is a shame to see this debate taking the forefront. At the same time, racism does not die easily and it will be some time before it disappears entirely. Conservative commentators and politicians have taken advantage of the fear that the racial distinction has created, and this is a problem which must be addressed now, before these feelings reach their inevitable conclusion and violence occurs.
(Header image credit army.mil images.)
Racism, the Mosaic Distinction, & Those Who Exploit It by Steve Richey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
This post was originally submitted for a class on religion and culture.