Those citizens who wanted to believe that the election of Barack Obama would somehow issue in a new, post-racial era in America must certainly be feeling let down right about now. In spite of having reached the milestone of electing our first black president, race relations in America are about as tense as they've ever been (or at least since the era of the Civil Rights movement came to a close). The issue of President Obama's skin color just won't go away, as much as I would like it to. Vaudeville clown-cum-political commentator Glenn Beck accused the president of harboring "a deep-seated hatred for white people" fairly recently, and just in the past few days proponents of the president (including Bill Cosby, of all people) have accused Representative Joe Wilson (among other of President Obama's detractors) of being racists themselves. And just to make things all the more interesting, Turner Classic Movies just aired a film adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin last weekend (isn't it lovely when the planets align in such perfect order?).
It would probably be pushing the envelope to say that all of President Obama's opponents and critics are categorically racists, even though a number of them (and perhaps more of them than we may think!) probably are. There is much to be said for the reasoned critiques leveled at President Obama's policies by genuine fiscal conservatives, but those level-headed voices from the right wing have been unequivocally drowned out by louder, angrier (and, it must be said, more fanatical) voices. The president's progressive policies would no doubt be met in any case by vociferous resistance from the right wing -- indeed, health care reform has stirred up the hornet's nest several times in the past -- but the fact that President Obama is black is surely only stirring the pot even more. The majority of Americans, I would venture to say, are not consciously racist. The volatile nature of the contemporary American political landscape, however, creates a situation wherein subconscious racial misgivings can rise to the surface and boil over. The situation reminds me of Danny Aiello's character from Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing -- Sal Fragione manages to maintain peaceful relations with the black residents of the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, but when the tensions come to a head Sal cannot help but give in to his unconscious racist tendencies.
Last weekend, some 75,000 people descended on Washington, D.C. to protest against President Obama, armed with the usual arsenal of signs denouncing the president as a socialist and accusing him of various misdeeds. It cannot be denied that the vast majority (if not all) of these protesters were white people intent upon "taking back" their country. The racial aspect of this -- not to mention other protests organized along "Tea Party" lines -- is much too significant to be ignored.
Those Americans who have given in to racist feelings need to realize that America is not (and furthermore, never has been) a wholly white nation. Blacks -- among other ethnic groups -- have been here just as long as whites have, and the black story is just as much a part of the American epic as the white story is. Though for most of this nation's history whites could conveniently ignore their black fellow citizens (to whom they had not been particularly kind, to say the least), the election of the nation's first black president has rendered that practice impossible, and a major portion of white America is bristling at the prospect of a black man as their leader. But black or not, the man is our president. And when he takes our hand to lead us, white America, what will we do? We must do the right thing.