Americans of all stripes were justifiably proud when the country elected its first black president in 2008, and again when he was reelected in 2012. The fact is that no other comparable democracy, in Europe or elsewhere, was then or would now be prepared to elect a leader from a minority group. But even as I watched the celebrations on election night in November 2008, I felt an undercurrent of unease. Heartening as it was, this was not a sign that we had broken the back of racism or of racially driven divisions in the country. The election of an African-American president could be seen by racists in America as a sign that they could be more blunt in expressing their views. After all, who could now say America is racist? And the same mindset could lead others to enable statements or actions that would otherwise be seen as over the line. And, of course, the inevitable harsh criticism of a president by partisans on the other side, something that comes with the territory, could easily take on a racial dimension for Barack Obama.
Over time, the hostility toward Obama grew dramatically, and so did racist statements. Actually, it did not take very long. One year into his presidency, ABC News catalogued an array of racially tinged and overtly racist statements or actions taken against Obama. They came from election and party officials and media figures, including Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. In the years since, the number of prominent figures using race as a wedge only grew. They include a New Hampshire police commissioner using the “N” word to refer to the president, a Montana federal district judge sending racist emails, and many others.
Most troubling is that some of the most loathsome comments have been enabled and legitimized. After Ted Nugent called the president of the United States a “subhuman mongrel”—a term CNN’s Wolf Blitzer noted was used by the Nazis to justify the extermination of Jews—Texas gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott welcomed this incendiary and hateful figure at a campaign event. And Colorado Senate candidate Tom Tancredo excitedly announced that he had gotten Nugent to contribute one of his assault weapons for Tancredo to auction off to help finance his campaign.
Race has always been, and probably always will be, a critical fault line in our society and democracy. It is a major challenge for Republican leaders to find ways—not with a few symbols or gestures, but through real sensitivity and policy reforms—to both reduce racial tensions and to appeal to more nonwhite Americans. And it is an immense challenge for Obama—a historic figure, the first African-American president, not simply the first president of and for African Americans—to build broad bridges and trust that keep the coming tremors low on the Richter scale.
Edited to add the related item below.