Obama’s America in Black & White

June 23rd, 2011

By Seth Forman

American Obsession: Race and Conflict in the Age of ObamaBlack political segregation, nurtured by the policies of the 1960s, has only hardened in the Obama years.

Platitudes about the civic utopia that would spring forth from the election of Barack Obama have vanished. Thomas Friedman’s claim that “the American Civil War ended, as a black man … became president of the United States,” has now been replaced by PBS host Tavis Smiley’s prediction that the 2012 presidential election is “going to be the ugliest, the nastiest, the most divisive, and the most racist in the history of this Republic.” E. J. Dionne’s trope that “it is time to hope again. Time to hope that the era of racial backlash and wedge politics is over,” has given way to the statement by CBS’s Bob Schieffer that recent criticism of Obama represents “an ugly strain of racism that’s running through this whole thing.” Paul Krugman, who wrote in 2008 that “Racial polarization used to be a dominating force in our politics, but we’re now a different, and better, country,” has taken to equating the anti-Obama Tea Party with the Ku Klux Klan.

It’s not just the punditry that overpredicted the soothing qualities of Obama’s presidential salve. Average citizens have also been chastened. A Rasmussen poll in October of 2010 found that just 36 percent of voters said relations between blacks and whites were getting better, down from 62 percent in July of 2009.

The experts can be forgiven their erroneous certitudes. They were enthralled by the historical significance of Obama’s election and, at least for those on the left, genuinely proud of how thoroughly involved they were in bringing it about.

Average citizens, too, should be given the benefit of the doubt. Most Americans are largely unaware of the important differences in political viewpoint between the races, and prefer to refrain from commenting publicly about such things.

So it wasn’t for them to point out what the pundits ignored: Obama is and always has been a hardened, bare-knuckled veteran of the culture wars, who not only pursues racial divisions among Americans for political gain but personifies the stark differences in political attitudes between whites and blacks. It was as obvious in 2008 as it is now that electing a man who describes a sermon containing the passage “white people’s greed runs a world in need” as the formative moment in his spiritual life would guarantee a period of unusual social bitterness and resentment.

And that is, in fact, where we are. A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that non-college-educated whites are the most alienated of racial groups. Only 44 percent of this demographic said they expected their economic situation to be better ten years from now, compared to two-thirds of minorities (and 55 percent of college-educated whites).

The familiar clichés with their subtle innuendos featuring “angry white males” who suffer from economic “anxiety” have been trotted out to explain white disillusionment. “The sense of being eclipsed demographically is almost certainly compounding the white working class’s fear of losing ground economically,” is how Ronald Brownstein of National Journal adroitly phrased it.

But the perception of an irascible white working class seems more of a projection of what liberal elites themselves would feel if they lacked power and prestige than it is an accurate depiction of white attitudes. More likely, white attitudes are being shaped by the perception that the top people in government, led by President Obama, embody a vision for America that is at odds with their own. Specifically, Obama’s efforts to broaden the role of the federal government through health-care reform, carbon capping, transfer payments, and profligate spending has amounted, in the words of Charles Krauthammer, to a redrawing of the American social compact, a recasting of “the relationship between government and citizen,” a sharp shift in power toward Washington, away from individuals and the free market.

America’s current social unease, in other words, stems from the feeling among large swaths of Americans that Obama’s agenda poses a direct challenge to the American Dream: the idea, as one prominent writer recently put it, “that through hard work and good choices the average American can be prosperous and independent, and that ordinary people … can govern themselves wisely and well without the ‘guidance’ of their ‘betters.’”

The extent to which blacks remain alienated from this historical social compact is America’s best-kept political secret. In the simplest terms, blacks tend to be more ambivalent toward the nation’s founding documents, institutions, and values than whites, are more likely to prefer an activist government, and are more likely to look skeptically upon free-market competition, entrepreneurship, and individualism. Polls cited by Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom in their seminal work America in Black and White show a marked racial divide on such questions as the proper level of governmental assistance, whether the federal government should provide more services even if it means new taxes, and whether or not it is the responsibility of government to reduce income differences among people.

In other words, even though the 2010 census reveals that residential segregation for blacks is at its lowest level ever (the average black lives in a community that is 54 percent nonblack), blacks remain the most politically segregated group. There is indeed no greater predictor of voting patterns than being black — not income, not education level, not marriage status, not age, not religious affiliation, not party affiliation, not profession. Once the voter is known to be black, it can be estimated with roughly 90 percent confidence that he will pull the lever for a Democrat.

This is scandalously dehumanizing. Billions of dollars have been spent examining black isolation in residential housing, but almost nothing is said about the equally insidious clustering of blacks on the political left, or the origins of this tendency in degrading public-policy assumptions. Some time around 1965 — perhaps when Lyndon B. Johnson told Howard University’s graduating class that America seeks “equality not just as a right or a theory, but equality as a fact and equality as a result” — America’s political elites surrendered to the notion that racism was so determinative of black success that only a full cadre of special programs, legal exceptions, governmental assistance, and racial preferences could even partially compensate for it. Thus, a new social compact, crafted specifically for blacks and based on government benevolence, was born. “Told repeatedly that they have little chance to succeed in a racist world,” John McWhorter explains in his book Losing the Race, “blacks were and are ripe for collectivist ideas that promise them a better future.”

A greater violation of the principles of free will and individual conscience could hardly be imagined. What other group of people is officially assumed by government to have had identical experiences or suffered the same debilitating social rejection? What other group must suffer leaders like Jesse Jackson, who told a Congressional Black Caucus reception in 2009, “You can’t vote against health care and call yourself a black man”?

Two related results of this special dispensation for blacks have been that they continue to trail whites, Hispanics, and Asians in the rate at which they create new businesses, and that they are overrepresented in government employment. It is no coincidence that the nation’s wealthiest majority-black suburb, Prince George’s County in Maryland, is a bedroom community of Washington, D.C.; 41 percent of employed blacks living in Prince George’s County work for the state, local, or federal government and another 10 percent work in the nonprofit sector.

While careers in government service can be rewarding, there is an emotional price to pay for not participating in marketplace competition. In the 1990s, the psychologist Ellis Cose became a bestselling author writing about the “rage” of black professionals resulting from being typecast by their white peers. But if the economist Arthur Brooks is correct in maintaining that “earned success” is critical to human happiness — that money corresponds to happiness only through the perceived creation of real “value” — then the black social compact has also played a role. Underrepresented in the most dynamic commercial sectors, stuck in slow-moving public bureaucracies, black professionals are more likely to lack the assurance one gains from the “earned success” of the marketplace, via the only objective measure of productive behavior: profitability.

Many whites may now be experiencing their own version of black middle-class “rage.” Obama has, in a sense, nationalized the black social compact. In his first year in office he rammed two massive bills through Congress in a concerted effort to reorganize American life around the objectives of redistributing wealth, expanding the welfare state, and increasing government employment. One bill, the “economic stimulus” act (formally the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009), added $862 billion to the federal budget, increased federal spending by 34 percent in a single year, pushed the public sector to almost 43 percent of the entire economy (up from 36.4 percent in 2008), and “saved” the jobs of roughly 900,000 state and local government employees at a time when the private sector lost 5.7 million jobs.

Half of the stimulus grants to states went for Medicaid and other transfer programs. The result, USA Today reported in 2010, is that Americans depend more on government assistance now than at any other time in the nation’s history: a record 18.3 percent of the nation’s total personal income came in the form of payments from the government for Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, unemployment benefits, and other programs. By August of 2010 government anti-poverty programs served a record one in six Americans. This growth in the number of dependent people, it is important to note, has taken place before the second of Obama’s two main legislative accomplishments — health-care reform — adds an estimated 16 million more to the Medicaid rolls, beginning in 2014.

Not surprisingly, given the factors outlined above, blacks are far more comfortable with Obama’s revised social compact than whites. Another Pew poll, in May of 2010, found that blacks were nearly twice as likely as whites to call U.S. economic conditions “excellent” or “good” (25 percent to 13 percent). They were also significantly less likely than whites to say that the American economy was still in recession (45 percent to 57 percent). Ellis Cose has even reemerged, 17 years after decrying the “rage of a privileged class,” to declare “the end of anger.” “In many ways,” Cose writes, “African-Americans today have more faith in this country than their white counterparts.”

Cose is, of course, right. Presidential job-approval polls by the Gallup organization have tracked two consistent trends in Obama’s ratings: overall decline from the highs of the exuberant first three months after his inauguration and a widening racial gap between black and white Americans. By October of 2010, Obama’s approval had dropped to a new low among whites (36 percent), but remained at 91 percent among blacks, a difference of more than 50 percentage points that has persisted ever since the end of the three-month honeymoon.

Pundits who spoke of a post-racial America if Obama became president were ignoring the fact, laid out in his two autobiographies and evident throughout his career, that Obama himself embodies the ambivalence that many blacks feel toward the “American creed,” a set of beliefs and attitudes born from a revolution against state authority and centered on the ability of individuals to determine their own destiny.

The result is that the country now seems to be teetering on the edge of race-based political partisanship. Unlike blacks, who are staunchly Democratic in their voting habits, whites have been far more evenly distributed between the major parties in their national voting preferences. They make up the vast majority of “swing” or “independent” voters, who lend the country its tone of moderation and centrism. Indeed, Obama carried almost half of them.

But Obama’s aggressive agenda for changing the vital structure of American life to reflect the more collectivist, less individualistic creed of the far Left has already triggered “white flight” from the Democratic party. In the 2010 mid-term elections Republicans carried the white vote by a 23-percentage-point margin (60 to 37 percent). Democrats performed worse with whites than in any other congressional election since the Second World War. Black voters remained at 89 percent for Democrats.

The Democratic party could become even more dependent on racial minorities, as blacks continue to interpret the white turn against Obama as cruel racial rejection. Arrayed against the party of minorities will be the predominantly white Republican party, completely bereft of blacks and increasingly heedless of their concerns. Rather than eliminating race as a significant issue in American politics, the Obama presidency appears to have rendered it the central cleavage in American life for years to come.

(This article was first published at National Review Online.)

Seth Forman is the author of the new book American Obsession: Race and Conflict in the Age of Obama (Booklocker 2011).

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One Response to “Obama’s America in Black & White”

  1. Tom Carter |

    Seth, it’s hard to disagree with much of what you say here. In particular, those who expected the election of Obama to herald a new era of sweetness and light and the end of race issues were sniffing the same glue that held together all those empty promises of hope and change.

    However, it’s easy to make too much of the fact that African Americans voted overwhelmingly for Obama and are likely to do it again in 2012. People of all races and ethnicities tend strongly to vote for (and otherwise support) people who are like them. That includes all kinds of choices, including whom they associate with, where they live, etc.

    The negative effects of social policies since the Johnson Administration have, in fact, impacted negatively on African Americans (and others) in many ways, just as Daniel Patrick Moynihan predicted that they would in 1965. These policies include quotas, vastly expanded and often abused welfare programs, and an aggressive approach to “diversity” that has done more harm than good. Overall, a sense of unwarranted entitlement has been created, an expectation that the government can always be counted on to take care of everyone. Some people are more susceptible to believing that fallacy than others, and everyone is going to have to get over it.

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