Perhaps it was too optimistic to think that the election of Barack Obama in 2008 meant that we were in, or at least entering, a post-racial society. Whatever racial elements were at play in the last presidential election, the tension and even anger now seems even more pronounced.
An ABC/Washington Post poll shows greater racial polarization among the electorate this year than in 2008, the first year an African-American became a credible presidential candidate, let alone the president. The tracking poll shows the president lagging behind Republican Mitt Romney among white voters by 23 percentage points—far more dramatic than the seven percentage points by which Obama was behind in the white vote in 2008, and even the 12 points by which he eventually lost the white vote that year.
Meanwhile, former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, apparently piqued at former (Republican) Secretary of State Colin Powell's endorsement of Obama, suggested that the respected general was making a decision based on some sort of racial solidarity. Said Sununu on CNN:
When you take a look at Colin Powell, you have to look at whether that's an endorsement based on issues or he's got a slightly different reason for endorsing President Obama. I think when you have somebody of your own race that you're proud of being president of the United States, I applaud Colin for standing with him.
Sununu walked back the statement later, but it's still disturbing. This is not some random angry person making anonymous comments on the Internet. This is a former senior White House adviser and a former governor, someone who is now advising Romney's campaign.
Whites aren't required to back a black candidate to prove they are not racist, any more than Powell and other African-Americans have to vote for a nonblack candidate to prove they are taking into account issues other than race. There is an argument to be made that really hating Obama because you don't like his healthcare or economic policy represents an advancement in race relations. But the numbers suggest something deeper is still at play. African-Americans, for example, have been even harder hit by unemployment than whites, and have similar American concerns about foreign policy and education. If race were truly not an issue, the numbers would be a little more closely aligned among racial and ethnic groups.
Nor has the attack on Obama as "other" dissipated in the slightest since his election. Sununu himself has commented that Obama needs to be more of "an American," and absurd rumors persist about Obama's place of birth or religion. The tragic irony is that Obama, aside from the sheer example of his status as president, is hamstrung when it comes to actually talking about race, since on a political level, it's more threatening coming from an African-American than a white candidate or official. Bill Clinton could talk about race in a way that sounded more palatable to white America. And yet Obama, if he were to engage in a frank discussion of race, would surely be castigated as divisive.
It's common, historically, for social advances to be met with an immediate pushback before things start to settle in for the better. The abolition of slavery was followed by Jim Crow laws. The civil rights movement of the '60s also was met with a backlash, though the fundamentals endured. There's been a lot of social and demographic change in this country over the last 50 years, even over the last 25 years, and it's perhaps a lot for some people to absorb. When the Tea Party candidates proclaimed they wanted to "take our country back"—and carried signs featuring the female former House Speaker, the gay former committee chairman, and the mixed-race president, that was no accident.
It does appear that some of the pushback is generational, and not necessarily coming from a position of pure bigotry. If you're much older, it may be difficult just to get your head around all the changes that have occurred in your lifetime. A white man who is now 70 grew up with a different example—guys like him ran the country, and his country pretty much ran the world. Neither of those things is true anymore, and neither is likely to change. And while it's not a defense of racism or xenophobia or unilateralism, it is an explanation of why it might be hard for some older people to adjust.
I have two young brothers, both of whom are mixed-race. One of them plays soccer at his school, and our father recently told me of watching Matty join in a pre-game huddle with his teammates. There they were—black, white, mixed-race, Cambodian—and they were all yelling, "Uno! Dos! Tres! Quatro!" to psych themselves up for the contest ahead. It was a lovely hybrid of the metaphorical melting pot and what former New York City Mayor David Dinkins used to call the "gorgeous mosaic" that makes up our country. We may end up taking one step back on race relations for every two we take forward. And eventually, maybe we just grow out of it.