America’s increasing polarization along racial and ideological lines is seriously undermining democratic ideals and principles. The fringes of the political left and the political right are putting power, privilege and prejudice over civility, community and commonality. The result is a country that values acerbic rhetoric over intelligent discourse, suppression of speech over freedom of speech and mudslinging over truth telling. Republican Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina is comfortable calling the president a liar and Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida is comfortable calling all Republicans killers. Is America a Democratic Republic or a banana republic?
The ongoing debate on health care demonstrates with laser clarity the racial polarization that is the new normal in America. “I guess we’ll probably have folks putting on white hoods and white uniforms again and riding through the countryside, intimidating people,” Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., said. “Magically, the alchemic powers of Obama’s black skin transmogrify the same arguments and the same rhetoric into racism. Saying ‘you’re wrong’ to a White politician is a disagreement; saying it to a Black politician is like shouting through Bull Connor’s megaphone,” wrote columnist Jonah Goldberg.
For many on the left, any criticism of President Obama is cloaked in race while many on the right simply refuse to acknowledge that there are some people in this country who will not accept a Black president and some people are members of the political right. To be sure, the left levels charges of racism as a political anvil as if its racial hands are clean. For example, former President Jimmy Carter said, “I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a Black man, that he’s African-American.” However, as president, Carter did not appoint Blacks to his cabinet in record numbers. It is thus somewhat curious that he believes that he has the moral clarity to paint dissension as racism in such broad strokes.
Whether they wish to admit it or not, many on the right understand and accept that there are some in their base for whom the election of a Black president means the destruction of “American values.” This is not to suggest that President Obama cannot be criticized because of his race; in fact, the opposite is true. The problem is when the criticism is used as code for racial prejudice and in the place of racial pejorative.
Can the right not publicly admit that it, like the left, provides political and ideological cover for the race-baiters in their base? The reality is that, on the right, there are still politicians and ideologues who use race to win political arguments and elections.
The problem for the left on racism is that, despite living in racial glass houses, it continues to throw stones.
Blacks who criticize the president’s leadership or his policies do so at our own peril. As a reader of my blog wrote recently, in response to my piece The Obama Presidency in Peril, “Lordy! And why are you, sir, bashing the man? It’s because of strides made by him and others that you even have the opportunities you have today. Support our president and pray for him.” Does this person and those who are of like mind really believe that in a democracy the right to petition the government for redress of grievances does not apply when the president is Black and the person so petitioning is also Black? Moreover, does this person believe that praying for the president rather than offering critique will strengthen his presidency?
A representative democracy only functions when the people can criticize those whom we have elected to represent us. Such critique should not be suppressed because we don’t like the critique. Moreover, such critique should be genuinely about policy and not a racial salvo cloaked in dissent.
The reality is that America is sliding into increased racial polarization because both the right and the left continue to use race to define the political discourse while denying that they are doing so. The result is a race to the lowest common racial denominator where dissent is silenced, race rather than policy is analyzed and America becomes more ideological and less democratic.
In his speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Obama said, “Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.” Recent events suggest that the president’s vision does not meet the racial and ideological reality on the ground.
Sen. John McCain in his concession speech to President Obama said, “America today is a world away from the cruel and prideful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African-American to the presidency of the United States.” But, has the America of today replaced the cruel and prideful bigotry of the past with a cultural, racial and ideological prideful bigotry of the present?
Dr. Christopher J. Metzler is the author of “The Construction and Rearticulation of Race in a Post-Racial America” and an associate dean at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies.