Speaking at a multi-day celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act on Thursday, President Obama rejected the idea that politics "is a fool’s errand" that can't continue to make the lives of black Americans better, displaying a rhetorical optimism on race that is belied by his obvious frustration at its obstructions.
Obama was elected thanks in large part to optimism. He was optimistic that America could rebound from the problems of 2008: a crippled economy and wars in the Middle East. He was optimistic that he could walk toward the middle and work with Republicans to pass legislation. He was foremost optimistic about the idea of a black man being elected president. To some degree, his optimism was borne out — but not broadly.
"Yes, it’s true that, despite laws like the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act and Medicare, our society is still racked with division and poverty," Obama said at the event in Houston. "Yes, race still colors our political debates, and there have been government programs that have fallen short." But this doesn't mean that those programs have failed and people should be cynical about politics. "I reject such cynicism because I have lived out the promise of LBJ’s efforts. Because Michelle has lived out the legacy of those efforts. Because my daughters have lived out the legacy of those efforts." In short: "The story of America is a story of progress."
On Wednesday night, Obama's attorney general offered a much less rosy perception of American politics, as manifested on a daily basis. "The last five years have been defined by significant strides and by lasting reforms even in the face, even in the face of unprecedented, unwarranted, ugly and divisive adversity," Eric Holder said at a gathering of Al Sharpton's National Action Network, according to Politico. "You look at the way the attorney general of the United States was treated yesterday by a House committee — has nothing to do with me, forget that. What attorney general has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment? What president has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment?" The subtext of the comments, particularly given the audience, was clear: Race plays a role in opposition to him and to Obama and to Obama's policy priorities.
House Speaker John Boehner rejected Holder's argument during his weekly press conference on Thursday, as CBS News reports. "There's no issue of race here," Boehner said. Instead, people were frustrated about Holder's failure to comply with Republican investigations into scandals that haven't gained much traction in the public eye.
It's probably less important than it seems to separate out the charge made by Holder — that Obama faces political opposition due to his race — from the broader charge that Obama rebutted in his speech: racism exists and demands a policy response, however incremental. At the root, the issue is the same. There are people who consciously or subconsciously oppose policy and politicians due to their skin color and cultural background. This was Obama's broadest point about cynicism. "There are also those who argue ... that nothing has changed; that racism is so embedded in our DNA that there is no use trying politics — the game is rigged."
Obama was basically proposing a straw man for rhetorical purposes. He put the challenge differently in January. "There’s no doubt that there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black President," Obama told The New Yorker's David Remnick. "Now, the flip side of it is there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I’m a black President." This point was echoed by Jonathan Chait in his story in New York magazine this week:
Liberals dwell in a world of paranoia of a white racism that has seeped out of American history in the Obama years and lurks everywhere, mostly undetectable. Conservatives dwell in a paranoia of their own, in which racism is used as a cudgel to delegitimize their core beliefs. And the horrible thing is that both of these forms of paranoia are right.
Obama and Chait ostensibly stand together in between (and pointing at) those two poles. Should we wish to do so, we can plant Holder and Boehner near either end: Holder laments undetectable racism, Boehner dismisses the racial cudgel.
The question that should be answered is which of these "paranoias" is the more harmful one. Is it more harmful that Republicans are accused of racism unjustly, or that intrinsic racism blocks the ability of black Americans to get ahead? The answer is clearly the latter, which Slate's Jamelle Bouie argued effectively in response to Chait. "The partisan reactions to Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis are less important than the activism that emerged around them," Bouie wrote, "in the same way that Republican complaints of language policing are less important than the party’s ongoing push for voter suppression."
Obama is trying to address those problems that disproportionately affect black Americans, if not the "seeping" racism Chait proposes. The president has increasingly taken steps that suggest he's actually given up on the optimistic idea that Republicans and Democrats will work together on doing so. He's enacted administrative changes to address low wages among federal workers and to reel in an unbalanced and harshly punitive criminal justice system. These are changes that Congress wouldn't make, in part but not solely because of indifference to the black Americans that are affected.
Obama may tell an audience celebrating racial progress that racial progress is possible. He may tell The New Yorker that both sides bear some blame in contributing to a racial imbalance. But from a practical standpoint, his goal is clear: addressing endemic racial challenges is urgent and ignored. His optimism on that point is gone. Racism, as it turns out, is so embedded in our DNA that there doesn't appear to be much use trying legislative politics. The game is rigged.