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Race and Beyond: What Will Be the Political Discourse Post-Obama?

SOURCE: AP/Julio Cortez

A man holds a sign while attending a rally for Steve Lonegan, who is running for the vacant New Jersey seat in the U.S. Senate, Saturday, October 12, 2013, in New Egypt, New Jersey.

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During his largely insipid Super Bowl Sunday interview with President Barack Obama, a preening Bill O’Reilly played to his audience of know-little Fox News watchers by pretending to ask the president tough and probing questions.

What a joke! All O’Reilly accomplished was to reload the ammunition for the wingnuts who continue to believe the president is a Marxist, socialist Kenyan bent on destroying their beloved nation. And, in the process, drive up the Fox News ratings to a 10-month high, allowing it to demand higher advertising revenues.

O’Reilly knew this. It’s the reason he lobbed silly questions that the president has either answered (such as “What happened in Benghazi?”, which was amply settled—everywhere except in the Fox News studios and Tea Party salons—during the second presidential debate back in 2012) or falsely premised (“Why doesn’t the president support school vouchers ‘to give poor people a chance to go to better schools?’”).

The Week’s Marc Ambinder got it right, writing that he’d never witnessed “a less informative, self-parodic nationally televised interview with the president of the United States. … Worst presidential interview ever” (his italics, not mine).

There was, however, a tiny jewel of insight to be mined from beneath the pile of hubris. I believe that one day in the very near future, a riposte made by the president that evening might be understood as a marker in our journey toward a multicultural America. Toward the end of the interview, O’Reilly asked the president if he thought Fox News was treating him unfairly. Obama didn’t flinch, saying point blank that he, indeed, felt that was the case.

Pressed to give examples, the president cited the ongoing interview that focused almost exclusively on Fox News’ negative talking points regarding the administration’s challenges and nothing about its successes. Then, in what had to have been a prepared talking point of his own, President Obama asked O’Reilly, Fox News, and the nation a simple question: “What are you gonna do when I’m gone?”

It’s a question rich with layers of racial meaning, extending beyond the shallow world, according to Fox News. O’Reilly didn’t answer it. How could he without journeying down a road that intersects with this nation’s inability to grapple with race and politics? Is it true that much of—or all—conservative opposition to the current administration is rooted in racism?

Among the crowd of the people I know best (admittedly progressives and overwhelmingly African American), the consensus is that the lion’s share of conservative opposition to this president grows from a single source: racism. They can point to any number of real or imagined slights directed at the president, the first lady, and their children as examples of racially motivated attacks to demean him and undermine his administration and its policies. Such thoughts aren’t confined to the far-left, out-of-touch fringe folk with bullhorns on soapboxes. A former president and a leading senator have expressed similar thoughts.

For the record, I’ve never thought the prime motivator of opposition to Obama was race. It’s politics. Our nation has been politically fractured long before Obama entered the political arena, and may be long after he exits. I never bought into the idea that Obama would solve our national problems or heal the racial divide. That’s too much to ask of anyone.

To be sure, racism exists. But arguing that Obama’s woes boil down to racism is too simplistic, glossing over the reality that half of this nation doesn’t see eye-to-eye with the other half, even if race doesn’t enter the equation. Such divisions have as much, maybe more, to do with our collective inability to empathize with people who don’t live near us or don’t come into our view—except when we watch them on television. People like O’Reilly, those with a broadcaster’s megaphone, have an obligation to do more than foster divisions and make privately held news operations—and themselves—richer in the process.

But let’s return, for a moment, to the president’s question. What happens to our national political discourse when Obama leaves the White House and the face of progressive politics is no longer African American? What are all of us going to do when there’s no longer a black man to despise or defend?

Will the attacks on progressive ideas soften or stop altogether? If so, that will prove racism is at the heart of the current conservative movement. But what if, as I suspect, they continue? Or, worse, grow more angry or divisive?

And what if the new president is a woman? Or a gay man or a lesbian? Or the native-born child of an undocumented immigrant? Will sexist, homophobic, or nativist behavior color our perceptions of any and all future political disagreement?

Who will stand up and call out their attackers for the wrong, mean, and disrespectful things they say or do? Will the dawning multiculturalism be an occasion for a revolving door of outrage at an ascending racial, ethnic, or gender group? Will it go unremarked upon or ignored as fiction by those who can’t feel the sting of an insensitive comment or snub? Are we really going to turn upon each other like that? Is that what multiculturalism will look like?

Or does everything change when a straight, God-fearing Christian white man returns to the White House? Will our politics return to normal? But what is normal? Is it possible that the next white male president could suffer a sort of reverse payback in the never-ending, tit-for-tat gamesmanship in Washington and beyond?

Come to think of it, isn’t that how we’ve gotten to where we are today? Where will it end? And, most importantly, as Marvin Gaye once crooned, “Who really cares? Who’s willing to try to save a world that’s destined to die?”

This is one of those unfortunate columns that raise more questions than answers. But the clock is ticking and it won’t be long before these murky issues become clearer. President Obama has less then 24 months remaining in his second term. Whether he’s president or not, the nation is evolving, becoming more diverse by the day. If we’re all going to survive in a multicultural America, we must have a shared brand of civic and political leadership, unmarred by divisive media that serve only to reap profits off the senseless racial bickering and bottomless political gridlock.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

Print: Katie Peters (economy, education, poverty, Half in Ten Education Fund, women's issues)
202.741.6285 or kpeters@americanprogress.org

Print: Tom Caiazza (foreign policy, health care, LGBT issues, gun-violence prevention, the National Security Agency)
202.481.7141 or tcaiazza@americanprogress.org

Print: Chelsea Kiene (energy and environment, Legal Progress, higher education)
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org

Spanish-language and ethnic media: Tanya Arditi
202.741.6258 or tarditi@americanprogress.org

TV: Rachel Rosen
202.483.2675 or rrosen@americanprogress.org

Radio: Chelsea Kiene
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org

 

This is part of a regular column: Race and Beyond

For more from the same column, click here