President Obama says some may not like him because of his race

Courtland Milloy
Columnist February 4

After five years in office, President Obama has apparently decided that it’s safe enough to stick another toe into America’s roiling racial waters.

“There’s no doubt that there are some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black President,” Obama said in an interview last month with David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker.

It’s not like he dove into the subject, of course. But it is a significant admission, if only as confirmation of what some black people have been trying to tell him all along. Racism is not a figment of the imagination.

Throughout much of his first term, Obama appeared not to understand that the racially tinged political attacks on him were personally insulting to his supporters, especially those who identify as African American. The way he responded to slights only made matters worse: try to make nice with the haters. Some good that did.

I wish Remnick could have followed up on Obama’s striking statement. Exactly what folks was he talking about? Call them out. What had they done to leave him no doubt about their racist ways? Could it be that some folks don’t like the idea of a black president because they don’t like the idea of black people, period? Many black people would probably be interested in what the president had to say about that.

“Obama’s election was one of the great markers in the black freedom struggle,” Remnick writes in the Jan. 27 issue. “In the electoral realm, ironically, the country may be more racially divided than it has been in a generation.”

No doubt about it.

A Pew Research Center poll released last week found that 90 percent of blacks had a favorable view of Obama — compared with 41 percent of whites. Also, about 84 percent of blacks approve of Obama’s job performance — compared with 34 percent of whites.

Are we living in two different countries? I guess if your forefathers arrived at Ellis Island on an ocean liner and mine on a slave ship in Charleston, it just might seem that way.

The race gap closes somewhat when the comparison is among Democrats of different races — with 93 percent of black Democrats viewing Obama favorably compared with 78 percent of white Democrats.

But let’s face it: in a country of roughly 200 million white people (and about 45 million blacks), we could be talking about 100 million whites holding unfavorable views of Obama and the way he’s handling the job.

“Obama lost among white voters in 2012 by a margin greater than any victor in American history,” Remnick writes. “The popular opposition to the Administration comes largely from older whites who feel threatened, under employed, overlooked, and disdained in a globalized economy and in an increasingly diverse country.”

By that measure, Obama should be in more trouble with black voters than any other group. An explosion of race hate on the Internet, widening income gaps between blacks and whites, white anxiety and fear over the “browning of America,” does not bode well for the future of race relations.

Another Pew poll, taken last summer, found that nearly half of all whites (48 percent) but only a third of blacks (32 percent) say “a lot” of progress has been made in the past 50 years to achieve equality between the races.

About eight in 10 blacks (79 percent) say a lot still needs to be done — more than 30 percentage points greater than the proportion of whites (44 percent) who feel the same way.

More disheartening, a lot of people — including African Americans — believe that just broaching the subject of race makes you racist.

According to a Rasmussen poll taken in July, 49 percent of Americans who identify as conservative consider most blacks racists; 12 percent say most whites are racists. Among those identifying as liberals, 27 percent say most whites are racist and 21 percent say most blacks as racist. Then remarkably 37 percent of black people think most African Americans are racist, compared with 27 percent who think that whites are racist.

There is much work to be done.

Now that Obama doesn’t have to face reelection, maybe he’ll venture to do more than dip a toe. After all, it wasn’t so many generations ago that the country went to war with itself for allowing racial wounds to fester. That it won’t happen again is not a foregone conclusion.

To read previous columns by Courtland Milloy, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.

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