It has become a near consensus among Democrats and many Republicans that Donald Trump is manipulating White Americans’ fear and anger over losing their country to Islamic terrorists, Syrian refugees, Latino immigrants, #Blacklivesmatter demonstrators and population trends. Democrats are deathly fearful of the Trump effect: the real estate mogul deepening the world’s racial and ethnic divides.
Inside this fearful collective is a burgeoning debate about what to do about the Trump effect — a debate amassing intensity now that Trump’s bigotry appears to be headed straight for the Republican nomination. Who, if anyone, should counter Trump’s bigotry this spring? Hillary Clinton? Bernie Sanders?
What about President Barack Obama? Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal recently blamed Obama for creating Trump. Polls are showing Obama will leave office as one of the most polarizing presidents in history — a polarization that paved the way for Trump’s candidacy.
One South Carolinian columnist recently urged Obama to save America from Trump’s angry Whites. President Obama was urged to dedicate some time during his final year in office to go “on a listening tour of White America — to connect, in person, with Americans he has either been unable or unwilling to reach during his seven years in office.”
If you feel like you’ve heard this or hoped this before, then you probably have. Seven long years ago, Sen. Obama sailed into the oval office on a wave of hope and change. He was supposed to be the Great Unifier. Large swaths of his multiracial ocean of voters were hopeful that their newly elected president had the heritage, temperament and talent to transform the divided racial states of America into the United States of America. For some, the ultimate task of President Obama was reaching and calming down those angry Whites. President Obama’s task of bringing the races together was bigger than politics, more consequential for his presidential legacy than ending the Great Recession or War on Terror.
Senator Obama and Candidate Obama and first-term President Obama were all conjuring “there is no blue America/red America,” imagining a “more perfect union,” and envisioning the march of racial progress. But over the course of his presidency, angry Whites have seemingly awoken President Obama from his audacious hope of reaching them, just as angry Whites awoke Martin Luther King Jr. from his audacious dream a year before he died in 1968. As Obama admitted during his last State of the Union Address, “It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.”
Through it all, some pundits are still urging the outgoing president to step forward, defy the odds and become the Great Unifier. They are refusing to recognize the reality of why President Obama’s early outreach efforts toward angry Whites failed. Why did President Obama lose out to Sarah Palin, FOX News, the Tea Party, evangelical pastors, Rush Limbaugh, the Ku Klux Klan, and now Ted Cruz and Donald Trump?
President Obama did not fail due to a lack of trying. He tried to unify, seemingly looking at himself as the Great Unifier until the intransigence of political racism smashed that mirror. But like countless other hopeful unifiers in American history, President Obama could not overcome the power of racist ideas.
If President Obama traveled on a listening tour this year, then he would almost certainly hear angry Whites blaming him and non-White people for their troubles. He would hear old and new racist ideas of the nation needing to be saved from immoral and criminal Black protestors, immoral and criminal Islamic believers, immoral and criminal Latino immigrants, immoral and criminal LGBT couples — and their unpatriotic White allies. Angry Whites are — and have always been—a product of America’s racist ideas. So long as there are racist ideas there will be politicians like Donald Trump masterly using and abusing them.
When we look past angry Whites’ old racist ideas, their crisp Trump shirts, their shiny Cruz buttons, their hitting Rubio soundbites, their tired Confederate flags, their rigid fear of darker skins — these people are no different than other people in the United States and the world over. Angry Whites want an end to their troubles and worries — troubles and worries that their racist ideas cause them to blame on non-Whites instead of their politicians’ foreign and domestic policies.
As President Obama continues his final year in office, he must reach out to those people with plans and policies to improve the economic livelihood of these angry Whites, of poor people, of working-class people, of middle-income people — of everyday Americans of all races. He must reach out to those people with plans and policies to find the justice in a system that would not indict the police officers who killed Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland.
That’s the best way to counter the Trump effect and the power of racist ideas. President Obama should press harder than ever before, wielding his executive power to institute these plans and policies, and not care if his actions allow Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio to breed anger among the very Whites whose lives his executive orders would improve. President Obama must focus on improving their lives and not fear their backlash this election year. Contrary to the hope of Trump strategists, the White backlash is no longer powerful enough to elect a president.
If President Obama is to be a healer in his final year in office, then he must recognize that pain is necessary for healing. With pain comes anger, and with White pain often comes racist anger — anger that President Obama must look past in order to heal America.
Ibram X. Kendi teaches African-American history at the University of Florida. His second book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, will be published by Nation Books in April. Follow him on Twitter @DrIbram.