August 20

Attorney General Eric Holder is going to Ferguson, MO today, and we can all hope that he makes some progress in calming the situation and moving the investigation into Michael Brown’s shooting forward. Holder’s status as the highest-ranking African-American in the government (after the President), and the fact that he has been more outspoken than President Obama about racial issues in the past, raise key questions:

How directly should Holder and his boss address the racial elements of this crisis? Would that accomplish anything? And what might they say?

So far, the statements from the President have been almost ridiculously tentative and even-handed. But that doesn’t matter. We don’t have to wonder what the reaction would be if Obama talked about the racial components of the events in Ferguson, because we’ve seen it before. There would be an explosive backlash on the right, no matter what Obama actually said.

Obama would be accused of being the “Racist in Chief,” as he has been in the past. Conservatives would say he’s trying to divide the country on racial lines. And Holder — without doubt the cabinet member most reviled by the right — would have almost the same effect if he spoke at length about the racial components of this crisis.

During the Obama years, the opinions of partisans on issues involving race have become more polarized, with Democrats and Republicans giving starkly different answers on every issue touching on race. This is even true of issues that have nothing explicitly do with race. The fact is that just by virtue of his involvement, Barack Obama can racialize anything, no matter what he does or says. A whole series of studies have found that opinions on health care become racially polarized when Obama is mentioned.

The intertwining of race and partisanship is starkly evident in Ferguson as well. It isn’t just that white people and black people are looking at the situation differently, it’s also that the Republicans and Democrats are. The Pew Research Center recently found that only 22 percent of Republicans said the Ferguson events raise important issues about race, compared to 61 percent who said race is getting too much attention. The numbers were reversed among Democrats: 68 percent said Ferguson raises important issues about race, and only 21 percent said race is getting too much attention.

It’s worth taking a moment to recall that the symbolic meaning of Barack Obama’s race wasn’t always what it is now. When Obama was first contending with Hillary Clinton for the 2008 Democratic nomination, conservatives fell all over themselves to praise him for how racially unthreatening he was. “He never brings race into it,” gushed William Bennett. “He never plays the race card. Talk about the black community — he has taught the black community you don’t have to act like Jesse Jackson; you don’t have to act like Al Sharpton.”

But a couple of months later, when it was becoming clear that Obama would be the nominee, everything changed. The controversy over Obama’s pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, was the excuse, but it was inevitable that it would happen eventually. “All the sudden you’ve got two dots, and two dots make a line,” said GOP media consultant Alex Castellanos. “You start getting some sense of who he is, and it’s not the Obama you thought. He’s not the Tiger Woods of politics.”

In other words, he’s not the deracialized, unthreatening black man. He’s Stokely Carmichael, he’s Malcolm X, he’s everything we can make white people resentful and afraid of.

From that point forward, conservatives in the media told their audiences that Barack Obama was an angry black man whose goal to exact vengeance upon them for the sins of the past. Glenn Beck said the President has “a deep-seated hatred of white people.” Rush Limbaugh told his listeners, “the days of [minorities] not having any power are over, and they are angry. And they want to use their power as a means of retribution. That’s what Obama’s about, gang.”

That message has continued pouring out of conservative media despite the fact that Obama almost never talks about race. If you’re a consumer of conservative media you don’t believe that, because you’ve been told so many times that Obama “makes everything about race.” But it’s true. And when he does talk about African-Americans specifically, it usually involves scolding black parents to “turn off the TV” and do a better job raising their kids. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in 2012:

Confronted by the thoroughly racialized backlash to Obama’s presidency, a stranger to American politics might conclude that Obama provoked the response by relentlessly pushing an agenda of radical racial reform. Hardly. Daniel Gillion, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies race and politics, examined the Public Papers of the Presidents, a compilation of nearly all public presidential utterances—­proclamations, news-conference remarks, executive orders—and found that in his first two years as president, Obama talked less about race than any other Democratic president since 1961. Obama’s racial strategy has been, if anything, the opposite of radical: he declines to use his bully pulpit to address racism, using it instead to engage in the time-honored tradition of black self-hectoring, railing against the perceived failings of black culture.

But that’s not the perception of white conservatives. They think not only that Obama is always bringing up race, but that it’s part of an effort to oppress them, in large part by keeping them on the defensive by accusing them unfairly of being racists. It’s almost impossible to overstate the degree to which conservatives are consumed with this idea. They would say that’s because liberals are constantly accusing them unfairly of being racists; I’d argue that though it certainly happens from time to time, the real source of the belief is that the specter of the unfair racism accusation is a daily topic in conservative media. What’s undeniable, though, is that this has become a central part of how conservatives understand the contemporary political world. In their recent book The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility, Jeffrey Berry and Sarah Sobieraj describe the interviews they conducted with people who regularly tune in to conservative media:

The experience of being perceived as racist loomed large in the minds of conservative fans. In fact, every conservative respondent asked how he or she feels about talking politics raised the issue of being called racist without even being asked, revealing the social power of such accusations. [emphasis in original].

However prevalent you think false accusations of racism actually are, what’s undeniable is that conservatives are hyper-conscious of them. Now combine that with the fact that in those same media outlets, there is a constant stream of race-baiting, in which people like Limbaugh tell their audiences over and over that everything Barack Obama does comes from a well of racial animus toward white people. The result is a toxic brew of resentment and fear, in which nothing that Obama (or Holder, for that matter) says can possibly be evaluated on its own terms. As Ezra Klein wrote, the White House knows that whatever Obama says on race, no matter how thoughtful or wise, it will end up only polarizing people further.

Perhaps it was naïve, back six years ago, to believe that Barack Obama could be a racially unifying figure. It would be even more naïve today to think that there’s anything he can do to make the racial divide better. It’s a tragedy that our first black president has come to a place where he knows he’s almost powerless to offer anything constructive on the racial issues that still plague our country. But that’s where we are.