BLOW: Plenty of racism above, below the surface

Keywords Forefront / Opinion

Charles M. BlowIn an interview with the BBC last month, Oprah Winfrey said of President Obama: “There is a level of disrespect for the office that occurs. And that occurs, in some cases, and maybe even many cases, because he’s African-American.”

With that remark, Winfrey touched on an issue many Americans have wrestled with: To what extent does this president’s race animate those loyal to him and those opposed?

To some degree, what some see as racial slights, others see as innocent opposition.

Some can see racism where it is absent, and others can willfully ignore any possibility that it could ever be present.

To wit, Rush Limbaugh responded to Winfrey’s comments in his usual acerbic way:

“If black people in this country are so mistreated and so disrespected, how in the name of Sam Hill did you happen? … If there’s a level of disrespect simply because he’s black, then how, Oprah, have you managed to become the—at one time—most popular and certainly wealthiest television personality? How does that happen?”

Anyone with even a child’s grasp of race understands that for many minorities success isn’t synonymous with the absence of obstacles, but often requires the overcoming of obstacles.

Furthermore, being willing to be entertained by someone isn’t the same as being willing to be led by them.

And affinity and racial animosity can dwell in the same soul.

It is reactions like Limbaugh’s that lead many of the president’s supporters to believe that racial sensitivity is in retreat and racial hostility is on the rise.

Are we seeing an increase in racial hostility or simply an elevation—or uncovering—of it? And are those racist attitudes isolated or do they represent a serious problem?

Much of the discussion about the president, his opposition and his race has centered on the Tea Party, fairly or not.

In one recent take on race and the Tea Party that went horribly wrong, Washington Post opinion writer Richard Cohen wrote:

“Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the Tea Party, but it is deeply troubled—about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York—a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. [Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?] This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts—but not all—of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.”

What exactly are “conventional views” in this context? They appear to refer specifically to opinions about people’s skin color.

Cohen seemed to want to recast racial intolerance—and sexual identity discomfort—as an extension of traditional values rather than as an artifact of traditional bigotry.

I don’t know what role, if any, race plays in the feelings of Tea Party supporters.

But nerves are raw, antennas are up and race has become a lightning rod in the Obama era. This is not Obama’s doing, but the simple result of his being.•

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Blow is a New York Times columnist. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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