Many Americans Admit Being Unable to See Beyond Candidates' Race
One Sunday morning in 2009, following the inauguration of President Barack Obama, Andrew Manis became incensed enough with the racist attitudes of Macon, Georgia denizens to pen a commentary to whites asking that they 'get over' their fear, anger, and white supremacists feelings toward Blacks. The commentary, entitled "When Are We (White People) Going to Get over It?," was picked up by the Macon Telegraph and in short order Manis, an associate professor of history at Macon State College, had received more than 5 million hits on the piece through Google.
Manis' editorial begged the questions: "How long? How long before we white people realize we can't make our nation, much less the whole world, look like us? How long until we white people can – once and for all – get over this hell-conceived preoccupation with skin color?"
Far from being some red faced Southerner feeling the pangs of white guilt, Manis cited the manner in which white conservatives consistently blocked any legislation they viewed as beneficial to non-white Americans, even during the Clinton administration, and the largely coded bigotry that appeared in popular culture during Obama's 2008 bid for the White House. Three years later, Manis, 58, told the Informer that while he cannot clearly gauge whether racist attitudes increased or decreased with Obama's presidency, the nation is hardly a post-racial society because it elected Obama.
"Just because it happened to elect one Black man as president does not make America a post-racial society. To say we are a post-racial society would make as much sense as saying Pakistan is a place where gender equality flourishes because Benazir Bhutto was their head of state. Or that Israel is a paragon of gender equality because they elected Golda Meir. White America continues to pretend that it is just an accident that African Americans remain about twice as vulnerable in statistics related to economic success – about twice as bad as for white people and that it has been that way for more than 50 years," Manis said.
A recent Associated Press poll supports Manis' position, finding that four years after Obama's election, the majority of white Americans express prejudice toward Blacks whether they recognize those feelings or not. In all, 51 percent of whites expressed explicit anti-black attitudes, compared with 48 percent in a similar 2008 survey. When measured by an implicit racial attitudes test, the number of whites with anti-black sentiments jumped to 56 percent, up from 49 percent during the last presidential election.
Had it not been for Jeremiah Wright, Obama may not have addressed race, "blackness" or any issues that were specifically germane to people of color during the 2008 election in Manis' estimation. Still, roughly 57 percent of whites over the age of 29, voted for [John] McCain.
"There is this idea that a Black president is going to hurt us, and take our money and give it to his people and that he is going to make us hurt the way we made his people hurt. There is some guilt there, some recognition that white people have historically made Black people hurt in this country. You get this language and when [Rush] Limbaugh says that one cannot get a job in the Obama administration unless they hate white people, one has to ask from where this is coming?" said Manis, who is Greek.
Similarly, Manis notes that with the exception of the Great Depression, every time concerns have been raised about big government, it has had some indirect connection to Black people in America, the issue of race, or of slavery.
"I would go a step further on big government than Mark Noll did with his book "God and Race in America" and remind conservatives who are anti-big government that the entire decision to write a Constitution was a move in the direction of a bigger government because it was clear that America did not possess a big enough, strong enough, government to sustain the nation. So if you can depict Obama's lean toward more government involvement with health care as a reason why you oppose a Black president, it is easy to see you simply want to keep the systems currently in power, in power," Manis said.
"When you have been king all of your life, equality feels like a demotion. White evangelical Protestants have been kings throughout most of American history until they were forced to accept other kinds of people at the table of equality. That is why they are talking about taking back their country. They have had to relinquish absolute control in the last 50 years," Manis said.
Political Scientist Wilmer J. Leon, III, posits the white anger as part of a return to white nationalist thought that lends itself to demands like, "We want our country back?" To which Leon asks "Who took it?" Evident in Tea Party rhetoric that cloaked racist language with chants of Americanism and popular culture attempts at pushing the lines of decorum, mass media has documented everything from the first lady represented as a bare-chested emancipated slave, to the president as a "hood boy" in wife-beater T-shirt and sagging pants.
"Racism has not gotten worse; however, there are those who are viewing things negatively through a racial prism and their perspectives have come to the surface. I don't believe the election made someone not racially bias, into someone who is. It did exacerbate what was already there though. In terms of the African-American community, the symbolism of an African-American president has been invaluable and incredibly powerful," Leon said.
A teaching associate in the Department of Political Science at Howard University, Leon said that while Obama became a figure of ethnic pride for countless people of color, particularly African Americans, the economic downturn helped create a great deal of racial animus.
"When the economic tide starts to contract, it makes sense that white people embrace things that they hold most dear: religion, guns, and their xenophobia. The president caricatured and depicted as a primate, Congressman John Lewis being spat upon and called a 'nigger' while walking to the House to vote about a year and half ago, and South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson calling the President a 'liar', are very tangible examples of how white folks have clearly demonstrated their bigotry and their reaction to the fact that there is an African American around," Leon said.
The office of commander in chief, said Leon, demanded a certain level of respect until a Black man took office. Afterward, white Americans became disrespectful of the office itself because of the individual holding it.
Colin Powell's former chief of staff, Ret. Army Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, concluded as much when he told MSNBC's Ed Schultz, "My party, unfortunately, is the bastion of those people – not all of them, but most of them – who are still basing their positions on race. Let me just be candid: My party is full of racists, and the real reason a considerable portion of my party wants President Obama out of the White House has nothing to do with the content of his character, nothing to do with his competence as commander in chief and president, and everything to do with the color of his skin, and that's despicable."
Still, Manis and Leon, both, remain hopeful with Manis pointing to the popularity of Obama among young white and minority voters. It signals a hope that "the bigotry of one generation can be eliminated among younger whites." Leon, as well, holds out hope that America can get over its racist attitudes and "become what it is supposed to be," Leon said.