Picking up a thread started by James Taranto over at the Wall Street Journal, I have argued in times past that there was significant hope that an Obama presidency might finally end the political and social isolation felt by African-Americans. We can trace similar mainstream integrations with Catholics and the election of JFK, and southerners with the election of Jimmy Carter. The thought would be that once a black man was elected president, the final “glass ceiling” was broken and there was nowhere off limits in society. That, and it throws a giant bucket of cold water on the notion that a black man just can’t get ahead in this country.
It seems though, of late, that racial tensions have been rising, not receding. It actually started before the election, with pro-Obama pundits and columnists hinting at a potential “race war” if Obama didn’t win the election. Not to worry, my 4 year old may have been able to beat McCain. (I know, he’s not constitutionally eligible to serve as president – but when did that stop anybody?)
During the election, two members of the New Black Panther Party showed up at a Philadelphia voting place wielding a night stick and intimidating voters. The Obama justice department chose not to pursue charges against these two. (There was even a claim by a former DOJ employee that he had been directed not to bring suits against black Americans on behalf of white Americans. I have no way to validate this claim.) Naturally the decision to drop an open and shut case (there are witnesses and video evidence galore) has cast doubt on any notion that all citizens truly have equal protection under the law in an Obama administration.
Next we had President Obama making the famous “police acted stupidly” gaffe in the Gates-Gate affair. The tacit assumption that the white police were wrong really didn’t help his standing in some political corners.
Then we had the dust-up between the NAACP and the Tea Party – with the former claiming racism on the part of the latter. Regardless of which side you come down on, it’s clear that the claim serves to raise tensions. I personally disagree with the claim, and believe it will be ultimately damaging to the NAACP – but only time will tell.
Shortly after this, we saw an USDA employee let go for allegedly making statements at an NAACP meeting that she had not fully helped a white farmer who came to her. This seems to have been a bit of a knee jerk reaction by an executive branch already trying to diffuse accusations of racial preference. The comments may have been taken out of context though, and Shirley Sherrod was offered her job back.
Next we see Glenn Beck planning to hold a rally for freedom-loving constitutionalists on August 28 of this year at the Lincoln Memorial. The date marks 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech. At this, the New Black Panther Party has raised its head again. Malik Shabazz, from the Philly voting station, who has said at other times that he wants to “kill white babies” – has indicated that he intends to meet Glenn Beck at the Lincoln Memorial on that day. Perhaps there could be trouble?
So, what does all of this mean? Well, maybe nothing. I mean, this certainly isn’t anywhere near the height of racial tensions in the US over the last few centuries. But one gets the feeling that we haven’t seen the end of it either.
Now we have the House Ethics Committee bringing charges against two senior Congressional African-Americans, Charlie Rangel and Maxine Waters. Are they guilty? I don’t know, but I’d guess the answer is “yes” – they’re congressmen after all. The charges have led to accusations that the ethics committee holds blacks to a different standard than whites. Is there a double standard? I don’t know. But if there is then it is clear that it is not too hard on blacks, but rather too lenient on whites. The claims against Rangel and Waters are egregious and if true they both need to be run out of office, and perhaps run into jail.
With this, Obama has another high profile race-based mess to address. He can’t possibly come to the defense of these two. After Gates and Shabazz, that move would forever alienate the blue-collar vote that he needs to get elected. But, he plays a dangerous game to come out against Rangel and Waters also – risking being labeled a traitor or Uncle Tom. Perhaps he’ll try to play both sides. He’s already made overtures that Rangel should go “with dignity” – maybe he can now come to Waters’ defense. (Sort of like voting for the $86 billion before voting against it.)
Now, in and of themselves, none of these events is anything to really make note of (other than the obvious violation of the law by Shabazz that went unpunished – what is this, 1960s Birmingham?). But they all serve to expose a raw nerve that I had rather hoped was well on the way to healing.
America is just a little bit more of a tinderbox because of these events. What happens if Republicans retake the House and/or Senate in 2010 and scuttle the Obama agenda? What happens if he loses reelection in 2012? Worse yet, what if his opinion ratings are so low that he doesn’t even run? Won’t any of those be cast as “white America” turning on him?
In the normal course of things, none of these events should matter – it’s just politics as usual. But this time things seem a bit more sensitive. This time, there may be a few more and louder expressions of frustration before we reach catharsis. We’ll be watching these things unfold as they happen, and time will tell if we’re in for a bit of a hard road or not … I’m certainly hoping for the “or not.”