One Step Forward and a Sideways Slide: Racial Politics in the Obama Era

Hardly have time to catch our breath or remember the exact names and places of carnage anymore, do we?

Orlando, San Bernardino, Charleston, Newtown, Aurora…was Columbine even in this century? (It wasn’t; the year was 1999, 38 U.S. mass shootings ago.)

And most recently, Baton Rouge and Dallas.

Begetting the question: Is our country falling apart?

To which the short and direct answer is “No.”

But it takes some doing and a substantial amount of reality testing to get there, given the long and vivid reach of modern media and the potent effect it has on our consciousness. If we look only at the litany of racially tinged events—the multiple killings of unarmed black men by police, and the recent wave of retaliatory murders of police officers—we might surmise we are on the brink of another civil war, with the racial divide as deep as it was in the 1960s. That’s when Newark, Detroit, Watts, and other American cities burned and calls of “Get Whitey!” scared the bejeezus out of WASPY suburban residents throughout the country.

But we needn’t look far beyond these current troubling events to see how vastly different the racial landscape is today than it was 50 years ago, much less 155 years ago. By any historical, economic or cultural measure, there is simply no comparison.

Does that mean that racism isn’t alive and well anymore in the U.S.?

I would say it is certainly alive, as any visit to an Internet comments section on articles involving race will tell you. But it is not well, as in “flourishing in winning the battle for hearts and minds.” More on that below.



A telling image: the two most prominent presences on the stage last week at the memorial for the slain Dallas police officers were our country’s first African-American president and the city’s first African-American police chief. The fact that it occurred at an observance for white officers killed by a black man only heightened the irony.

I don’t think Martin Luther King, Lyndon Johnson or anyone else involved in the troubled-but-forward-thrusting events of the 1960s would have dared predict any such scene.

And therein, I believe, lies one of the most rational explanations for why we are experiencing the apparently retrograde fraying of the bonds that have brought untold numbers of African Americans into the economic and cultural mainstream in the past half century, even as there is obviously a tremendous amount of work still to be done.

You’d go a long way to find a radical bone in Obama’s body, yet he has been resisted with the ferocity usually reserved for tyrants or scoundrels. Why would this be? Because he’s left-handed?

Make no mistake: President Obama’s election was a monumental event signaling huge progress in American history, but it also set the stage, and, in retrospect, almost guaranteed yet another paroxysm of attempted retrenchment and resistance.

It’s Newton and Hegel all over again:

“To every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction…”


“Thesis, antithesis, synthesis…”  (Every idea or movement begets its opposing force until the two forces merge into a fresh synthesis.)


Racists were driven largely underground as socially unacceptable in recent decades, shamed by the massive political and cultural shifts we went through as a nation. They resorted to stewing in silence as the old world of utter white dominance in every facet of American life steadily eroded and we became a land of greater—but a long way still from total—equality.

Integrated schools, the rise of a substantial African American middle class, blacks as professional sports stars, coaches, entertainment moguls and professors, interracial marriage commonplace. Even AT&T commercials began to feature black families acting as normal or goofy as whites, and every Budweiser commercial became filled with the obligatory one or two blacks all palsy-walsy with their honkie, back-slapping bros.

What were racists to do in the face of all that?

Hide in their caves, was the answer—until the election of a black president, the ultimate uppityness, unleashed the furious hounds of hell, who were finally emboldened-because-desperate enough to yap at that president’s heels with unremitting, ugly tenacity.

To say that the hatred of President Obama from large portions of the right wing is beyond all rationality is to state the obvious, given the essentially moderate, reasoned incrementalism that is the hallmark of his temperament and governing philosophy.

You’d go a long way to find a radical bone in Obama’s body, yet he has been resisted with the ferocity usually reserved for tyrants or scoundrels.

Why would this be? Because he’s left-handed?


I want to be careful here not to impugn those who harbor legitimate political differences with Obama; those exist as standard operating procedure in any freewheeling democracy. But it is either naive or willfully ignorant to ascribe the level of vitriol we see to those differences alone. It started with all the birther brouhaha years ago and later developed into the nativist Tea Party and various militias who have posited Obama as a kind of Antichrist bringing on the Armageddon for which they need to organize with the help of their camo outfits and AK-47s.

John Kerry might have inspired continuing ridicule for his Francophile and patrician ways were he to have become president, but Obama, no more liberal than Kerry, seemed to elicit an ugliness that would never have occurred with Kerry or Al Gore in the same way, with the same bitter tones.

That bitterness is real and has gained tremendous force through Obama’s two elections, rising to new heights with the recent spate of police-related shootings and the ascendance of Donald Trump.

Paradoxically, despite his nativism and blatant appeal to fear and prejudice, I doubt Trump is himself a racist as such. He is instead an equal opportunity aggrandizer or bully, and those functions are color-blind: he’ll try to promote, ignore or destroy people strictly on the basis of whether they can help him swing a deal.

That said, is he only too happy to capitalize on the bilious hatreds harbored and spewed by many of his followers if it helps his electoral prospects? He provides the answer to that question in his own unmoored, free-associating way almost every day.

It is no accident that Trump’s calls for “law and order” are lifted word-for-word from avowed racist and former Alabama Governor George Wallace, another presidential candidate (American Independent Party, 1968) with a nativist bent and gut instincts clearly oriented toward demagoguery.

Notably, Wallace won five Southern states, totaling just under 10 million popular votes and 46 electoral votes, the last third-party candidate to make a dent in the Electoral College.

Also notable: Wallace’s 1958 run for governor of Alabama came up short against a racist supported by the Ku Klux Klan. Wallace had actually been endorsed by the NAACP, but after his defeat, he reportedly told his aide,

“Seymore, you know why I lost that governor’s race?…I was outniggered by John Patterson. And I’ll tell you here and now, I will never be outniggered again.”

Still later, concerned for his salvation and chastened by an assassination attempt that had left him paralyzed the last 26 years of his life, Wallace publicly recanted his racist views and asked for forgiveness from the black community. One wonders if Trump will ever see fit to do the same for those he has demonized.

For a while, it looked as if Trump might emulate Wallace’s third party bid, with Mexicans and Muslims the designated boogeymen rather than Wallace’s blacks. After all, once the mainstream Republican kingmaking machine kicked into gear and got itself behind Jeb or Marco or Scott, Trump would be relegated to insurgent status, correct?

The fact that it didn’t turn out that way is The Story That Confounded the World in 2016, and it is one with multiple components, not the least of them being the residual racism that finally gained enough cover under Trump for it to crawl out fully from under its rock and give voice to its shrunken ways.



But I want to believe, at the risk of Trump proving me wrong again, that we have progressed too far beyond racism, misogyny and other prejudices to turn back the clock that far, however much Trump’s Republican Party—because it really is his party at the moment—sounds more and more like the worst of the Know Nothings and other retro insurgencies from the past.

Trump lags badly among the educated classes, women, minorities and youth, with youth in particular confounded by anyone who holds racist, homophobic or sexist views. (Trump’s Republican platform endorses all three in one form or other.)

Today’s youth, and I am speaking generally here, of course, have come of age in the hodge-podge-stewy-gumbo-melting-pot-goulashes of American life, whether cultural, culinary, ethnic or sexual. They tend to stare blankly and shake their heads at anything suggesting blacks, gays, Muslims, Mexicans or women (or black-gay-Muslim-Mexican-women) are anything less than human and anything less than deserving of all the rights such humanity confers upon them. It’s because they have been exposed to this American stew and recognize themselves as but one component of it.

Personal exposure and familiarity with the other is the great slayer of ignorance and prejudice, and personal exposure does nothing but increase in an age of globalization, migration, social media and ever-increasing travel. That’s where the future lies, and I am banking on us going there.


And there is this, too: We shouldn’t think for a moment that almost every police officer in the country isn’t asking him or herself hard questions, both on and off duty, whether in their patrol cars or in the park watching their kids on the swings, about their response to African Americans.

Sure, some are likely racists, others merely trigger-happy or scared into making snap bad judgments. But having known and in my newspapering days worked alongside a goodly number of cops over many years, I think the vast majority are emphatically not any of those, but are instead deeply troubled by the killings committed by fellow officers, the taint  of racism now clinging to all police, and the deadly violence recently directed toward them.

So let us, in the spirit of the same generosity and benefit of doubt we like directed our way, assume that police officers, just like every well-intentioned professional, racial, or ethnic grouping, are lopsidedly more decent, kind and law-abiding than not. Let’s build on that core, not tear ourselves or them down with the outliers.

Yes, it seems to be taking an unconscionably long time to rid ourselves of the racism we fought a war over a century and a half ago. But we’re a young species, barely beyond our cave dwelling, tribal ways in any evolutionary time scale. And we have actually been changing like mad relative to our cousins in the primate kingdom, not to mention the dumb chickens we gaze upon with such fondness in their backyard coops.

Out of all these convulsions, we must assume the David Browns (Dallas police chief) and many others will help find a way to better protocols, improved threat assessments, and everything else that goes into the nearly inevitable improvement we see in every field of human endeavor from one decade and century to the next.

Why would we think this is not so? Because a demagogue like Trump comes along every half century or so, reminding us where we have come from and how a basic primitivism still lives inside us, flaring periodically when we get stressed and become, for a while, not our best selves?

The evidence for humanity’s continued evolutionary progress is here in front of us wherever we look. Amidst the pushing and pulling, thesis and antithesis, ideas and counter-ideas leading to better ideas and supported by the hard scrutiny of science and critical thinking, we move forward, one hard-won inch at a time, giving back a half-inch a little further ahead, but pushing onwards all the same, through every season and challenge and clime.

We seem to be built for the task, our endless brainy questing and curiosity combining with hearts that need just a baseline amount of cultivation to keep yielding ever richer fruits. Been doing so for a long time now, should be good enough to keep it moving along for the future, too.


Fine archival footage here, and the irrepressible Sam Cooke…


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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at:

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President Obama portrait by Dan Lacey, Elko, Minnesota, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at:

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4 comments to One Step Forward and a Sideways Slide: Racial Politics in the Obama Era

  • Angela  says:

    I take some comfort here from your words, considering that perhaps when this malignancy is revealed in the open, as it has been these past weeks, it can be really dealt with, must be dealt with. You refer to the years when it was less socially acceptable to be openly racist; it is difficult not to prefer that suppression! I would rather it had stayed way, way underground. Well, what I would really prefer would be that it had been successfully resolved, as I know unrest festers underground and does not disappear. It so clearly has not disappeared.

    Perhaps all this pain and tumult can lead to some real dialogue, as well as being forced to acknowledge the danger in allowing every cranky person, let alone those who are enraged, to be armed and express their anger and settle every grievance with violence, or buy silence with threats of violence. We can also consider the danger in not resolving longstanding issues of economic hardship, lack of hope and direction for so many among us.

    Now the anthem has become “Make America Safe Again!” And just like the slogan exhorting us to make America great again, I have to ask: make it safe and great again for who, exactly? The “again” part of those phrases is so dispiriting and flat out false when one considers all the marginalized people who have never felt safe, who feel even farther from safety today, and who have not especially been allowed to sit at this table of “greatness” and prosperity either, now or in that previous time we are encouraged to pine for with rose-tinted and myopic glasses of nostalgia.

    Fear is contagious, and seductive. We are so vulnerable to manipulation of these primal emotions and must strive to be our best selves in our responses. Part of that response needs to be a recognition and rejection of that manipulation, and choosing leaders who offer real leadership and a path forward, not divisiveness fueled through fear.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Thanks for this eloquent extension of important points that didn’t quite make it into my own discussion, Angela! The gun fetishism of this time is astounding and dangerous, with the specter of a citizenry armed to the teeth to make themselves feel “safe again” particularly alarming. And this notion that we were ever “safe,” oh my…the basic existential threats we face every day aside, tell that to the legions who were lynched and beaten and denied voting rights and jobs and housing in our own lifetimes for having the wrong tint to their skin…

  • Dennis Ahern  says:

    An excellent analysis of fits and starts society has made over the last several decades toward racial parity. Oh! how naive we were as Obama was sworn in, believing we had reached a new level of societal enlightenment. It’s clear now that perhaps the greatest effect made was to disturb that sleeping dog of entrenched racism. And goddammitohell he was mad for being made to lie so long. Trump will likely fail in his bid for the Ultimate Reality Show. And when that happens what will happen to that sizable and surly contingent who found voice in his perversely nostalgic ‘when we were great’ message? I have no small fear they will take an ironic cue from Malcolm X (who took a cue from J.P. Sartre) and consider it may be time to resort to regaining the high ground By Any Means Necessary. That’s almost certainly too apocalyptic. But at the least, that dog’s got some ranging around to do before the synthesis happens. And perhaps we will trade 8 years of neo-racism for 8 years of misogyny.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Dennis, this will be a very serious matter going forward, especially if Trump loses but even if he wins: what to do with the substantial dark energy that is propelling so much of it. The gun fetishists and don’t-tread-on-me super-libertarians are harboring a lot of anger, for which Trump has provided a safe harbor of sorts—safe once again to say and convey the most appalling things, under the banner of not being “politically correct.” How that plays out under a Trump presidency or a loss, with Hillary driving the opposition to distraction for another 4 or 8 years, is anyone’s guess.. Truly wild times we are living in…

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