Ethics & Public Policy Center

Barack Obama and Racial Double Standards

Published in Commentary magazine on April 9, 2012



Late last week I heard from a theologian of liberal leanings, someone with whom I have been in (often friendly) correspondence for years. He wrote me to voice his objections to my recent “diatribes” against President Obama. That didn’t particularly surprise me. What did surprise me is how he framed his objections. He didn’t take issue with the facts I’ve presented or even my interpretation of the facts. Rather, his concerns were expressed this way:

When I read your constant barrages aimed at the first black president, I think to myself, “Doesn’t Pete, the devout Christian, understand what it took to get to this place? And where would Pete have been in the years of the freedom struggle that finally eventuated in some measure of equality for African-Americans and even a black president?” Isn’t there some way you can temper your attacks on Obama with this history in mind?

In a follow-up note to me, he elaborated on this matter, saying, “The presidency of an African-American is a dramatic symbol of the advances in the struggle for human rights in this country so long denied to black citizens. Unless you have a record deep in the civil rights struggle, relentless attacks on this symbol will be seen as giving aid and comfort to, if not an expression of, the latent racism that is still much with us in this country. That is why criticisms of this president-as-symbol are not to be made in the same way as the conventional political fisticuffs.”

This was, I thought, an instructive, if discouraging, window into the modern liberal mind.

Set aside the fact that this country that is so filled with “latent racism” elected Obama by the largest margin of any Democratic since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and that he took office with extraordinary good will from the American people.

For the sake of the argument, let’s stipulate that my criticisms of the president are, in fact, entirely justified based on the facts and the record. It would still not matter to him. Why? Because this “president-as-symbol” means he should be held to a different standard than a non-African American. Normal standards of truth, evidence and argument no longer apply.Obama needs to be treated with kid gloves—even if he makes false and malicious charges against others and, in the process, does great damage to our civic and political culture.

To put it another way: the theologian I heard from is insisting that my criticisms of President Obama need to be muted because he is a black man—and unless I have a “record deep in the civil rights struggle” (I was barely out of diapers during the Selma-to-Montgomery marches) criticizing him in the ways I have will “be seen as giving aid and comfort to, if not an expression of, the latent racism that is still much with us in this country.” So there you have it: laying out my philosophical and political disagreements withObama, in the manner I have, is stoking racist elements in American society—and if I don’t want to be complicit in the rise of racial hatred in America, I need to “temper” my “attacks” on the president.

I pointed out to my interlocutor that (a) being a Christian doesn’t mean one must accept bad arguments and (b) accepting his critique is condescending. He has convinced himself that he is standing up for blacks and civil rights even as he is saying that we cannot treat them as equals. The rules that apply to others don’t apply to America’s first African-American president. Those who are advancing such a view are doing blacks no favor—and I for one cannot believe that President Obama would want to be judged by the color of his skin (which is what this theologian is insisting on) rather than the content of his character and the quality of his record.

The proposition that because Obama is the first black president we should treat him differently than we would treat a non-black is one many of us simply reject. A color-blind standard is of course at the heart of the case laid out by Martin Luther King Jr.

Ten days after President Obama took office, I offered four predictions, the first of which was this one: “while Obama is riding high, race relations will be excellent. But once Obama goes down in the polls and he does things that elicit criticism, be prepared for the ‘race card’ to be played. If it is, then race relations could be set back, because the charges will be so transparently false. If race was used by Obamacons against Bill Clinton, it will certainly be used against Republicans.”

That prediction has played itself out innumerable times since the dawn of the Obama Era. And it’s only going to get worse, as my recent exchange shows.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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