My Obama column had a mistake: Racism is not invisible

Posted at 11:26 AM, Jul 20, 2015
and last updated 2015-07-23 14:20:54-04

I wrote a column last week that needs some amendment. In “Mr. President, on behalf of an ungrateful nation, thank you” I argued that Americans would do well to appreciate our president more, much more. 

Presidents in the modern, post-television era have found it impossible to maintain support, credibility and, yes, popularity as some of the best earlier presidents did. Obama is no exception – at least according to the polls and the punditry. This is an era that shrinks giants.

"Mr. President, on behalf of an ungrateful nation, thank you." from Scripps Washington Bureau on Vimeo.

DecodeDC columnist Dick Meyer offers some points to ponder about Obama's record. Read the full column here:

Seen in this context, Obama’s presidency is extraordinary. History will rate President Obama as an exceptional president and probably a great one. I think this should be perfectly clear in the present tense, even if you disagree with the administration on big, important issues. 

My own list of complaints is fairly long and harsh, especially when it comes to the worst “war on terror” excesses that Obama continued or expanded. This is not hugely important to my assessment of the president. We all think we have the “right” views on the “issues” – this is what people do. In politics and history, there are values more important than being agreed with.

It should take only a modicum of civic maturity to note policy disagreements, yet acknowledge this president’s accomplishments, high ambitions and courage, and the integrity and discipline he has brought to the office. We ought to be more appreciative of that in the present.

Regrettably, one of the points I made in arguing all this was stupid. In this paragraph, I described the unique obstacles Obama has battled:

Obama has weathered a recession, invisible racism, a reckless Republican Congress, a lily-livered Democratic Party, attacks from the richest pressure groups ever (Super PACs) and a 24/7, ADHD press corps under existential pressure to deliver page views and Nielsen ratings. He has done it with the “No Drama Obama” style that befits the office. [Emphasis added]

Invisible? What was I thinking?

As soon as I started getting e-mails from readers about the article and looked at some of the online comments, I knew I blew it.

There is nothing invisible about the racism President Obama and his family endures. It is painfully visible, extremely loud and vilely malodorous. When Obama went to Oklahoma last week, the Confederate flags protesters were waving at him weren’t invisible.

In the comments and emails I received, Obama is “Barack HUSSEIN Obama,” a “radical Islam” to some of the people who hate him so. Some cling to the faith that he isn’t an American. Some just see him the way unapologetic racists see the people they hate; you know the language they use.

Now, visible, overt racism spews from only a splinter of America. We don’t really know exactly how large this broken, dangerous shard is. And there obviously is a more amorphous ganglion of essentially racist biases, prejudices, bad habits, stereotypes, ignorance and blindness that isn’t overt, intentional or violent but still harder to document.

What I ought to have said is that the role racism plays in influencing public attitudes about Obama and in the venom of his most extreme opposition is not adequately captured in polls, focus groups and political science research. The role of racism is unquantifiable, not invisible.

Because the “race factor” is unquantifiable, and emotionally loaded, it is underreported and avoided. Obama, as a campaigner and president, has never used this as a defense, excuse or explanation.

You could argue that Obama also has gotten “extra credit” for being the first black president and this somehow balances out racism factor. It’s a weak argument.

First, being elected to be the first black president is by any measure a historic accomplishment and monument. Second, any ongoing “bonus” to his approval ratings as president mostly dissipated in his first year. Third, Obama never, ever asks for “extra credit.”

It is perfectly clear, as I was reminded, that President Obama is the target of deep, enduring and very visible racism every day. It was my own common sense that was invisible in unintentionally suggesting otherwise.

That’s a good reminder, for me at least, that the president and his family don’t get all the credit they should for their guts.