When Barack Obama was elected President of the United States in 2008, it opened up a new dialogue on race in this country. Suddenly, something had happened that many thought was impossible. An African-American had been elected to the highest office in the country. Many Americans felt a sense of pride in their country on the day Obama took the oath of office. There was even talk of a new post-racial America. Now, only two and a half years later, those feelings seem foolish and utopian. Americans are now wondering if, instead of a step forward, the election was actually a step backwards.
There is no doubt that President Obama has faced a racial backlash. He has even had to deal with that backlash from within his own party, as clearly shown during the DNC Rules Committee meeting in May, 2008. That backlash did not come as a surprise for those who had paid attention to racial tensions in this country, although the ferocity of that backlash has shocked just about everyone.
The 2008 Democratic Party campaign was historic in that the two front-runners were a woman and an African-American male. Both candidacies inspired passionate supporters. A rift developed between the two camps. That rift was never fully healed and has led to strident opposition to the winner that is rarely seen within a victorious party. That opposition continues to play out in the online world of political blogging. Subtle and not so subtle racism and sexism finds its way into online discussions. When added to the overt racism from the right, this in-party opposition creates a toxic environment for any discussion about race in America.
While the racial backlash unleashed by the Obama election has revealed deep racial tensions in this country, a more subtle division has become more visible in recent days.
It is rather easy for those on the left to come together to condemn racism when it comes from those on the right. What isn’t so easy is for those on the left to face any accusation against liberals of racial bias. This has become evident in the ongoing controversies of the past few months.
When people of color began to speak up for themselves on liberal blogs and in print publications about white privilege and how it affects both conversations about race and criticism against the president, white liberals reacted with outrage. “How dare they accuse me of being racist”, was a common refrain. “You are being too sensitive”, said many white liberals. POC responded by saying that whites can’t really identify with POC, because they haven’t lived with the constant racism that affects POC in this country.
The right is thrilled to see a rift developing between white liberals and POC. Anything that weakens the president’s coalition is seen as a gain for the right’s cause. Major political blogs, like DailyKos, and publications like Salon have been caught up in the issue. TheGrio.com, an MSNBC web site, published an article on September, 30th titled “Are black Obama backers and white liberals parting ways?”. It seems as if racial discourse is trending backwards after so much hope for advancement. However, I think there is another, more positive, way to view what is happening in the online world.
For far too long, most whites in this country rarely heard the views of POC about racism or any other issue. What they did hear was filtered by the mass media and consisted mainly of the views of a few of the more vocal or prominent African-Americans, like Bill Cosby or Jesse Jackson. Hardly any whites had heard of people like Melissa Harris-Perry, Denise Oliver-Velez, or Van Jones. That is changing.
While POC make up a small percentage of political bloggers on sites like dkos, they are there and their voices are being heard. White discomfort with that discourse is evidenced by the reaction to MHP’s recent articles and by the dkos purge. Reaction follows action. In this case, the action is the entry of black voices into the conversation. That can only be a good thing.
While the right rejoices at seeing disarray on the left and the left struggles to deal with the new reality, everyone seems to be focused on the negatives. Both sides are wrong to view it that way.
The tensions and the conflict on the left is not something to be feared. It is exactly what so many of us on the left have been yearning for, for far too long. We are finally having that discussion about race in America with all voices being heard. POC are entering the discussion and it is changing the whole nature of the discourse. This isn’t a step back, it is a long awaited step forward.
As with any change, there will be discomfort, fear, and resistance on the part of many. As blacks and Hispanics gain more of a voice in the discussion whites will have to adjust to the change and accept a loss of control over the tone and direction of the conversation. As the voices of POC gain recognition, more and more of them will join in. This is the beginning of something truly significant.
Those of us that hoped the election of Barack Obama was the beginning of a new era were right. It’s a new era all right, just not in the way we thought. Don’t despair. Rejoice.