Ned Barnett

Obama, race and his opponents

A reader from Cary wrote a letter to the editor last week expressing his exasperation with “a very disturbing theme” he found in several other letters published on these pages. He noted that writers had questioned whether racial bias was behind Rudy Giuliani’s doubts about President Obama’s patriotism and a letter signed by 47 Republican senators to Iran reminding leaders of that nation that Obama’s agreement likely would not survive a Senate vote.

“Is everyone who criticizes or disagrees with Obama necessarily a racist? Do supporters of Obama take that as a given? If the answer is ‘yes,’ civil political debate is no longer possible,” the reader wrote.

Last week on the U.S. Senate floor, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) made a similar complaint. After Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said the Republicans’ delay in taking up the nomination of Loretta Lynch for attorney general was “beneath the dignity and decorum” of the Senate and Republicans had effectively asked the African-American nominee “to sit in the back of the bus.”

McCain responded, “What is beneath the decorum and dignity of the United States Senate – I would say to the senator from Illinois – is for him to come to this floor and use that imagery and suggest that racist tactics are being employed to delay Ms. Lynch’s confirmation vote. Such inflammatory rhetoric has no place in this body and serves no purpose other than to further divide us.”

The reader’s letter and McCain’s outrage arise from a common irritation felt by those opposed to Obama’s policies and dubious about his competence. They find it frustrating and insulting to have their objections answered with charges of racism.

There is no doubt that many use that highly charged term to dodge and devalue the merits of criticism. But it is equally true that racial bias – overt or unconscious – is part of the story of the Obama presidency. The election of the first black president was thought to have symbolized a nation that had risen above its sad and bitter history of racial prejudice. And to some extent, it did signify that evolution. But a black president has also brought to the surface how much racial tension remains.

The news of recent weeks has exposed institutional and personal prejudice and reminded African Americans that the dream of Martin Luther King is still far from fulfilled. There was the U.S. Justice Department report revealing racial bias in the conduct of police and courts in Ferguson, Mo. There was the video featuring white members of the University of Oklahoma’s chapter of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity on a bus singing, “There will never be a n----- in SAE.” And there was Obama marking the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday by joining in a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., and declaring that the struggle for civil rights is still with us. “Selma is now,” he said.

That racial bias persists in the United States is hardly news, but it is news if it is growing and becoming a more powerful subtext to politics. Obama’s critics bristle when their opposition is attributed to racial bias or to their pandering to those who regard Obama as undeserving of his office and of their respect. But those critics would do better to answer the charge with actions rather than counter-charges about “playing the race card.”

Unfortunately, those actions are rare. In a nation where minorities are moving toward becoming the majority, the Republican Party is consolidating into a party of whites. Party leaders should be bothered by the party’s lack of minority members. In North Carolina, Republicans enjoy veto-proof majorities in the state House and Senate but have not a single African-American senator or representative in a state that is 22 percent black. Congress isn’t much better.

The party should be trying to recruit black candidates, and that should start with showing respect for the political struggles endured by African-Americans and the pride they take in the election of Barack Obama. Instead, there’s a Republican congressman shouting “you lie” at the president during his address to Congress, the Republican House speaker inviting the prime minster of Israel to a joint-session of Congress without informing the White House and Republican senators signing a letter to Iran telling its leaders that Obama doesn’t really speak for the United States.

Now we have the spectacle of Loretta Lynch being made to wait longer than other attorney general nominees to be approved for a post for which most Republicans agree she is eminently qualified. North Carolina’s two Republican senators have added insult to the delay by opposing a nominee who is a native of their state, a woman of great academic and professional achievement and a potential inspiration as the first black woman to become U.S. Attorney General. Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis oppose Lynch because she would not commit to withdrawing a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s sweeping rewrite of election laws after the U.S. Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act. It is a demand that reflects either the senators’ cluelessness or their callousness.

A charge of racial bias is no answer to sincere concerns about national policy, but those who object to the charge should do more to ensure that it doesn’t so easily stick.

Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at or 919-829-4512.