JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama, April 27, 2011.
President Obama, April 27, 2011. JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
The birther revival fueled by Donald Trump reintroduced the issue of just how much influence race and racism have had on Obama's political career.
David Remnick, the New Yorker editor and the author of a very readable Obama biography, "The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama," didn't mince words this week when he wrote that the New York developer and potential GOP presidential candidate was engaging in race baiting, first with birther attacks on Obama, then by questioning the president's Ivy-League academic credentials which some see as pushing the affirmative-action button.
Remnick was on All Things Considered Thursday and talked with co-host Michele Norris:
Mr. REMNICK: He's race-baiting. He's hatemongering. It's very clear what he's doing. He's trying to arouse half-buried feelings in many people that are unfortunately still there, and highlighting what people suspect of him in some corners; that he's the other, that he is a radical.
And Donald Trump, who wanted to make a name for himself yet again, and to -he's the kind of exhibitionist, a moral or immoral exhibitionist. And he was willing to play this really ugly game and he got exactly what he wanted -higher TV ratings, attention, lots of microphones in front of him. And he's a clown.
Trump denies he's playing with racist fire. Sounding a bit like Archie Bunker, he said he's always had good relations with "the blacks,"
Given the re-emergence of Obama's race as an issue this week, at least in the minds of some, it's worth taking a moment to note how Obama and his closest aides have handled the issue of race and racism in the past. To wit, they largely have avoided it.
They have essentially done that with the birther issue, not linking it to racism or racial demagoguery.
If others make that connection, so be it. But Obama and his team have made a conscious decision to point out what Obama has in common with many voters, not his differences.
This is remarkably consistent with the approach Obama took as a candidate, the first African American to win a major party's presidential nomination.
As outlined in the book "The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars and Save Our Lives" by Shankar Vedantam, Obama and his aides studiously avoided focusing attention on the role race played in the 2008 campaign.
Obama's team had a choice: they could either take the race issue on frontally or they could largely appear to ignore it. Some political consultants and psychologists and sociologists, experts on racism, urged Obama's campaign officials to attack the issue directly.
Vendantam explains that the Obama campaign chose the other course, to ignore it until they were forced to deal with it at the height of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy when the Obama gave his famous "race" speech in Philadelphia which was really more about anger than race, as Vendantam points out.
It turns out, when you're dealing with the unconscious or hidden brain, the less direct approach is more effective is more effective in undermining racial stereotypes and fears.
When people spread racist lies about a black candidate, the obvious response was righteous indignation, but the more effective response was apparently to approach the problem sideways — to tell voters that the way they felt was understandable, but to ask them to "take a chance" on the candidate. Racist beliefs, in other words, were best left unchallenged if you wanted to persuade someone to vote for your candidate. I started to understand where Obama's approach had succeeded where so many other black candidates had failed; his campaign's conscious decision not to cry foul, not to voice the righteous indignation to which he was surely entitled, was the only way he could win.
I asked (political pollster and consultant) Celinda Lake about this after this after the election. She acknowledged that there was a tension between fighting stereotypes and trying to get a candidate elected. But she pointed out that if getting Obama into the White House involved making some compromises, it was also the case that Obama's election promised to reduce racism in the United States. as nothing else could. The hidden brain learns through blind repetition, and Obama's election meant the country and the world would spend the next several years being bombarded with counter-stereotypical messages about a very smart, articulate, and charismatic black man — who happened to be the most powerful person on the planet.
While Obama and his advisers clearly prefer to let sleeping racial dogs lie, they have no control over Remnick who, like others, including many African Americans, asks and answers the question of why Obama should be subjected to a birthright challenge no other president has encountered. More from his ATC interview:
Mr. REMNICK: Well, it's interesting that this never happened before. Why is this happening for the first time now? You might ask yourself that question. And to me, there's racial roots to this. Really, I'm not in the habit of screaming racist at every turn. I don't think you are and I don't think most people are.
But the attempt with Obama is to delegitimate him as an American, as somebody both worthy of and legally allowed to participate at the presidential level in American life.