From time to time, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, and Clarence Thomas have naturally talked about growing up African-American under far less tolerant conditions than those we take for granted today. Yet their biggest contributions to American race relations have been their admirable abilities to transcend such racial intolerance - to make being black incidental, not essential, at least in public, to their sterling characters and impressive achievements.
They all paid a price for emphasizing individuality rather than adhering to identity politics. Those on the left often criticized them as somehow inauthentic, or not fully representative of the "real" black experience. Indeed, one of weirdest paradoxes of contemporary culture has been the tendency of wealthy white liberals to adjudicate who really speaks for the so-called African-American community - based on an authenticity that is often, in ironic fashion, based on the degree of perceived hostility to whites themselves.
Then came Barack Obama, and the nation as a whole entered an even stranger racial landscape. Unlike Powell, Rice, or Thomas, Obama was not born into, but rather piggy-backed onto, the African-American experience. He came of age well after the South's oppressive Jim Crow culture began to wane. He grew up in a multiracial Hawaii that was always somewhat more relaxed, and was exempt from the tensions inside the continental United States. Obama was of half-white ancestry, and raised by white grandparents. Finally, Obama's father was a Kenyan national and Muslim, not a descendant of American slaves, and so he lacked an African-American pedigree altogether. In other words, as Obama himself often insisted, our new president was in a way reminiscent of Tiger Woods: postracial - black, white, a little bit of everything, but beyond divisive self-identification with any one particular group or tribe.
Yet somehow one Barry Dunham/Obama - after Occidental, Columbia, Harvard, Chicago organizing, and the Reverend Wright's Trinity Church - morphed into an authentic voice of the African-American collective experience. The rest is history. A black politician who once struggled to establish African-American credentials has now become our collective arbiter of race in a way former African-American national figures could hardly imagine.
Whether due to the utility of identity politics or simply to his own comfort with racial emphases, Obama has highlighted, rather than downplayed, his own mixed heritage in efforts to accentuate an African-American identity. We saw that in the Democratic primary, when his support from the black community was not at a mere 60/40 majority, or 70/30, but more often an astounding 95/5. His continued apologies for the racist Reverend Wright were as sincere as they were suicidal - until Wright's increasingly lunatic racism was too overt to be any longer defended by a serious candidate for the presidency.
From time to time, a voice of near-antipathy in Obama erupted, as in his infamous "clingers" speech about the lower-middle-class supposed know-nothings of Pennsylvania, or in his dismissal of the grandmother who raised him as a "typical white person." Before Michelle Obama grew silent, she managed to tell America that it was a "downright mean" country, where the bar was raised serially even on those as wealthy and privileged as the Obamas, and that, prior to her husband's presidential campaign, she had not been especially proud of the United States - amplification of long-held views that can be seen as early as her Princeton undergraduate thesis.
No matter. The media and the liberal elite ignored these telltale signs, and instead were eager to accept the implicit pact that the soothing racial healer Barack Obama offered them. It was an unspoken understanding that might be paraphrased as something along the following lines: "Vote for me and I will offer you instant exemption from all prior racial guilt - and yet allow you to live your rather secluded lives as usual."
In other words, the endowed professor, the corporate attorney, the green CEO, the endowment officer, and the high-school teacher could all continue to live in safe and separate neighborhoods, ensure their children went to mostly white and Asian schools (whether elite public or private), and through taxes for entitlements and abstract support for affirmative action still feel they were doing a great deal for race relations. As they saw it, they elected one comfortable and hip Barack Obama as their president - without living among, going to school with, or working alongside the Other.
But nemesis is not so understanding; it demands more of us than such cheap bromides. And Barack Obama's prior racialism, as evidenced by two decades of attendance in, and subsidies to, the Reverend Wright's racist church, leaves indelible scars. And so to paraphrase the reverend, the chickens are now coming home to roost for America.
The president's apologies abroad focused on supposed American felonies, from slavery to the conquest of Native America to the dropping of the atomic bomb. Since there were many such lamentations, and they were not balanced by citing the gallantry of Shiloh or Gettysburg in ending slavery, or Guadalcanal to stop Japanese brutality, or Chosin to save South Korea, the impression was left that Barack Obama sees America quite differently from many, if not most, of its citizens - who understand our own sins as those shared with mankind, but our singular efforts at correcting them as unmatched abroad.
The Cairo speech was full of historical falsehoods, and a textbook example of moral equivalence, as Islamic felonies were juxtaposed alongside American misdemeanors in the fashion of the Platonic "noble lie." Time and time again, in both implicit and explicit fashion, our president has made it clear that he does not believe in American exceptionalism - despite assuming quite an exceptional pulpit to weigh in on global matters.
Then we learned that Obama was not terribly disturbed to hear that his attorney general had lambasted the American people as "cowards" for not engaging in yet more national conversations on race - which in the past have not proven to be honest and painful discussions that touched on black responsibilities as well as civil rights. He tsk-tsked Judge Sotomayor's racialist comments about the innate superiority of Latina judges over their white counterparts - although the unfortunate remark occurred at least five times, in both written and oral contexts, and was part of a brief speech in which she managed to reference herself as a Latina/Latino dozens of times.
Now President Obama has passed judgment on the Professor Gates tragicomedy by deriding the Cambridge police force for acting "stupidly" in arresting and then releasing his friend. It mattered little that Obama, the Harvard Law graduate, knew nothing about the details of the case. A picture taken at the scene, and eyewitness accounts of bystanders - and who knows what the yet-unreleased transcript of the recorded exchange with Professor Gates could reveal - all seemed to suggest that Gates overreacted to a legitimate request for an ID. Americans, white and black, may lament someone being arrested in his own house, but they also do not think it a wise idea to insult and ridicule armed police arriving at their homes after being summoned to an apparent burglary in progress.
Indeed, if anyone evoked race and profiled one by race, it was more likely the professor of race studies than the police. And for all the president's referencing of the old standby toss-off line that minorities are disproportionately stopped by police, the nation was hardly likely to think that Gates - as one of the country's highest-paid professors in the humanities, and as a personal friend to the African-American mayor of Cambridge, governor of Massachusetts, and president of the United States - was being railroaded.
In the jargon of postmodernism, the president asserted one racial narrative as truth, while most of multiracial America accepted quite another: that Professor's Gates's contacts and friendships gave him privileged treatment not accorded to others who scream and blow up at policemen, and that minority males are indeed tragically disproportionately stopped by police because they also, tragically, are more likely to commit felonies. The president's ossified remark ignored real efforts on the part of police departments to hire African-American officers and chiefs, engage community leaders, and train police in racial sensitivity - all the while dealing with the fact that African-American males commit violent felonies in numbers that vastly exceed their presence in the general population.
None of us gets a pass once we evoke racial identity, not even the president of the United States, not even one of mixed racial heritage. Once we go down that road of racial self-aggrandizement, of seeing each other not by the content of our characters, but by the color of our skins, we invite nemesis - and there will be retribution. Because Barack Obama has consistently emphasized racial identity to further his own advantage, I fear others, both black and white, will be emboldened to follow his polarizing lead - in ways both novel and far more pernicious. We once trusted our uniquely qualified president to help lead us out of our racial morass, but so far he has only pushed us far deeper into it.
By Victor Davis Hanson
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online