There’s nothing like a molten hot take to warm up the icy news tundra of Christmas week, and so it is that Politico Magazine has stepped in to fill the void with a column suggesting that President Obama travel the country silently being spat on by racists in order to counter Donald Trump‘s Starkiller Base of white resentment. Lest you think I’m exaggerating, here is a little sample of Issac Bailey‘s well-intentioned but misguided column:
He shouldn’t say much at all. He should go primarily to listen, even if it means he has to endure being called nasty names to his face or risk being spat on. Because when you cut through the political rhetoric and fearmongering and empty, overheated debates, that’s the one thing people in those communities believe they haven’t received and want most—to be heard.
There’s a lot more to the piece (which you should read in full before judging) than that, but it doesn’t get much better than its headline – Why Obama Must Reach Out to Angry Whites.
On Twitter, black people have been delivering some blistering critiques of Bailey’s piece, including the observations that the author of the piece is black, is engaging in “tomfoolery,” is perpetuating the “magical negro” trope, and repeatedly identifies the burgeoning non-white majority as a “problem.” Here are a couple of snippets on the latter counts:
The ugly rhetoric just might force the country to finally contend with a problem many don’t even want to acknowledge exists: that we are fast becoming a nation in which minorities make up a majority of the population.
…But the current president—the nation’s first black president, born of a white mother, married to a descendant of slaves, father of 21st-century daughters—can use the allure and mystique of his office to speak to the American public, and all of its myriad, divisive factions, in a way no one else can.
Yes, and maybe he can open his mouth up wide and let all of the racism fly into him, then die.
Setting aside the fatally-flawed premise that it is President Obama’s responsibility to sooth these people while he applies Bactine to the knuckles they’ve been scraping on him for seven or eight years now, Bailey seems to have missed the single biggest moment of then-Senator Obama’s 2008 campaign, and everything that followed it. Obama gave the biggest speech of his campaign in direct response to panicked Whitey, and in the middle of it, granted his fears a legitimacy that no other politician could have gotten away with:
In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.
Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren’t always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.
Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze – a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.
That speech, and particularly that section, may not have alone carried him to victory, but are what got Barack Obama through the turnstile and onto the platform. Once he arrived, President Obama did everything he could to let Whitey know he was going to be “everyone’s president,” a fact you can check by googling “April Ryan Press briefing” and listening to the responses she got every time she pressed this White House about black issues.
But hours before he was even inaugurated, Obama was being conspired against by Whitey’s party, so it didn’t matter how much he reached out to them, it was never going to happen. The fact is, though, he reached out plenty. The mainstream political media never shut up about how “aloof” Obama should schmooze more, but fell eerily silent when John Boehner confessed that it wasn’t Obama who was afraid of getting cooties:
The president has suggested, ‘Hey, do you think it would be too much trouble to play golf again?’ I have to look at him and say, ‘Yes,’ Because everybody gets bent out of shape, worried about what we’re up to, when all we’re about to do is play golf.
The appeal of Bailey’s premise, if there is one, is that old “right or wrong” saw, that even if it’s not Obama’s fault, he should still step up and try to do something about the tide of resentment that Trump is riding. Even on those grounds, though, going on tour to let Trumpians vent their spittle on him is not going to help. They don’t feel ignored, there is an entire media infrastructure devoted to amplifying them, and an entire political party with a long history of diddling them under the table. They will not be sated.
There is a widely-held political misunderstanding about White America that fuels this kind of thinking. There are actually three White Americas: the Trump America that’s either balls-out racist or feels “understandable” resentment, the “Reagan Democrats” who recognize racial injustice but can be persuaded to ignore it in their own self-interest, and liberal White America, who will keep racial justice somewhere on the menu, depending on whatever else they’ve got going at the time. Only two of those White Americas are reachable, and Trump America ain’t one of them.
It’s that second group that needs to be worked on, and to the extent that he can, President Obama has done that. It was these voters Obama was playing footsie with when he called on Muslims to root out radical ideology in the wake of the San Bernardino attacks. The best thing he can do now is to keep killing terrorists and rescuing the economy, because no matter what he says, the media is only amplifying Trump.
No, the person who’s best positioned to reach those other two White Americas is Hillary Clinton, and she needs to do it by explaining something that no other politician has quite managed to: how it is that things like racial justice, reproductive freedom, and religious inclusion are in white voters’ direct self-interest. Too often, these issues are discussed in terms of lofty principles of fairness or spiritual adherence to American ideals, which is nice, but which the middle third or so of white ‘people will throw overboard in favor of what they see as practical considerations.
For example, I’m betting that the overwhelming majority of white people recognize that racial discrimination plays at least some part in employment disparities, but a similar percentage probably see correcting that problem as damaging to themselves. If a black person gets something, then a white person isn’t getting it. What I never hear any politician argue is that when employers pay black workers 75 cents on the dollar, they are not giving that extra 25 cents to white workers, any more than slave owners used the money they saved on paying slaves to shower white workers with generosity. Pay disparities depress wages for everyone.
Obama won twice, so those voters can be reached. President Obama can do his part through actions, but somebody else needs to talk to these people. Obama will be gone in 12 months, and his replacement will be whomever explains to a majority of Americans, white and non-white, what’s in it for them.
cross-posted from Mediaite