Paul Kendrick of Talking Points Memo has a great piece up begging people in the media to stop blaming President Obama for other people’s choice to be racists. He phrases it more gently than that, but that’s the general gist of it:
That some now hold him responsible for a lack of a racial utopia is actually another indication of how long such an advance will take. No other president has been expected the bear the weight of changing us so radically. As many have pointed out, electing a black president does not make us post-racial—in fact, it has served to bring to the surface long-simmering elements of the American soul.
How else can we explain the furious reactions, like Judge Jeanine’s, to any attempt by Obama to talk about racially charged incidents? And how else to explain the disdain and dismay of liberals who want Obama to heal us solely by his words?
To accuse the president of failing to move us past racism is like blaming our doctor when we don’t lose weight—though you made no effort to change our unhealthy habits.
It is, of course, easier to blame Obama than to confront the resentments and fears in our own minds. Even beyond the evident imbalance in our justice system, studies clearly show educational and economic gaps separate us racially in terms of opportunity and the persistence of racial discrimination. Saying it is Obama’s failure to make us post-racial is skirting our own responsibility to scrutinize ourselves.
Exactly. The entire discourse is about eliding the fact that racism isn’t just some free-floating force, but something that is perpetuated by actual people, mostly white people. It’s actually an insult, in a way, to those white people to suggest that Obama’s magic words should somehow heal them, because it removes their autonomy from the equation. Where on earth people get the idea that conservatives lack the autonomy to decide for themselves how to feel about race, I have no idea. But now it’s become clear that they do have that autonomy and they are, which shouldn’t be a surprise, using it to double down on already existing ugly attitudes about race, out of panic because Obama’s election suggests that white supremacy really is being threatened. Look, if black people had the power to end racism through the magic of honeyed words, this problem would have been licked hundreds of years ago.
This assumption, that liberals were wearing the ruby slippers to win over conservatives all along, is hardly limited to being upset with a black man because he can’t crawl into Bill O’Reilly’s head and turn off the racism switch. You see this assumption that it’s a failure of liberals if conservatives can’t act right all the fucking time. I’ve been guilty myself. The messaging needs tweaking! We need to reframe the arguments! Clap harder! We have the power to fix them, if we just work hard enough! You see it a lot with feminism, which is routinely declared a “failure” because so many people stubbornly refuse to stop being sexists. But there’s another way to look at it, which is that sexists are the failures here: Failing to be decent people, failing to be open-minded, that sort of thing.
Sure, minds can be changed and absolutely, we need to test and brainstorm creative strategies to persuade people to see reason. But the overemphasis on the powers of persuasion turns into a form of victim-blaming, as we see here with Obama v. the racists, where somehow it’s Obama’s fault if a bunch of racists run around saying black people brought their problems on themselves. Do we sincerely think that Obama is leaving some cards on the table here? I’ve seen the man cycle through a dozen or so strategies to talk about race, and every single one of them causes conservatives to pee their pants and scream like toddlers. That is because they do not want to be persuaded. They do not want things to get better. There’s no way to trick them into accepting change they do not want. They’re assholes but they’re not idiots. They know that you’re trying to talk them out of racist beliefs and they are not having it. Unless you think someone has mind control powers they’re avoiding using because insert-X-Men-plot-device-reason-here, it’s shitty to blame people who aren’t causing the racism because they can’t stop it.
Backlashes are inevitable for this reason, and it’s high time liberals understood this and weatherproofed our basements, rather than acting like we’re caught flat-footed every time conservatives throw a nationwide tantrum at the merest hint of social progress. Granted, it’s nearly impossible to tell what form a backlash will take, but that it happens shouldn’t be a surprise. Of course we’re going to see growing antagonism towards contraception as women actually start to make economic and social gains. Of course we’re going to see conservatives start a grossly racist panic over ebola in response to Obama’s continuing presidency. Of course we’re going to see Bill O’Reilly try to find a reason to blame rap music because cops treat unarmed black men like target practice. Hating change is the constitution of the conservative. Of course they’re going to scream and cry like infants. Knowing that’s going to happen and there’s no way to avoid it is freeing. It allows us to work around them, to speak to moderates and focus on systemic changes, without getting all hung up on how we didn’t develop the magic powers to fix them.