Thursday, June 24, 2010

Race and Reason

For the last two weeks in this space, I have been critical of President Barack Obama. My reprehensions have largely pertained to his policies and performance, in areas like the Gulf oil spill, health care and debt.

Opining about the most prominent politician on the planet engenders fiery responses from all sides. One of the reasons it is unwise to discuss politics socially is that folks tend to jam all the frustrations from elsewhere in their lives into that topic, so rhetoric quickly becomes heated. But with Obama, the debate persistently reverts to the issue of race.

I first puzzled over this after one of my early columns on Obama, years ago. Why was a political article suddenly about skin color? Had my editors slipped in a racial slur?

Myriad opinion-pedlars had the same experience, and it was only in the fullness of time we realized this was “the move” among some partisans – accuse any Obama critic of racial bias.

No decent person opposes Obama simply because he is black. But opposing him does not make people indecent, either. Yet people hammer each other on this score.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say these accusations are generally insincere. That is, folks who hurl the charge don't actually believe that in today's day and age, evil, moustache-twisting racism is behind criticism of Obama.

In my experience, when such accusers are confronted, they normally demur, saying they're not speaking of anyone in the immediate discussion, then they make some vague reference to the rampant intolerance of the Canadian West or the American South. This, too, is bollocks on stilts, defiant of modern realities. Seeing the Calgary Stampede on TV doesn’t mean you understand Alberta, just as changing planes in Atlanta doesn't make you a Civil War buff. Besides, impugning an entire population just to make a political point is pretty poor.

People were hopeful that Obama's election would solve racial problems, but this emerged from overturning the misbegotten notion that America would never elect a black president. Almost two years after a majority of voters did just that, including in the South, the issue lingers.

Look, Obama has not thrived in the presidency. For the good of the world, I hope he gets it together and becomes a smashing success but, for the moment, his lousy performance is a matter of record. That’s not a slur, it’s a fact. But therein lays an opportunity.

I believe real progress will come when Obama is treated like any other politician and the subject of race is no longer raised in his defence. That is, when Americans are just as comfortable voting against him as for him. Obama, or anyone else, should be judged on the strength of his policies and, dare I say it, the content of his character, rather than the color of his skin, even if that means being critical.

Supporting or opposing a candidate for reasons of race, gender, or anything besides what they do and advocate evinces ingratitude for the hard-won struggles of the past. Likewise, assigning sinister motives to fellow citizens who disagree with you is not the stuff on which strong societies are built. We can do better. At long last, it is time for us to treat people, simply, as people.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.