An embattled American President gives an iconic speech to a divided nation. The president, Abraham Lincoln, and the speech, The Emancipation Proclamation, are forged into this country’s history, and over a century and a half later, both are still lauded as a moral epiphany. Yet soon after this famous oratory was delivered, there were those who found the urgency to disagree with its content in the most profane manner.
Editor of the Greensport Republican Watchman Henry A Reeves’s response was swift and characterized the backlash of those whose racism was etched permanently in their ethos: “In the name of freedom of Negroes, [the Proclamation] imperils the liberty of white men; to test a utopian theory of equality of races which Nature, History and Experience alike condemn as monstrous, it overturns the Constitution and Civil Laws and sets up Military Usurpation in their Stead.”
Today there is still an element of our society that holds to obdurate beliefs of inferiority of certain races as in Lincoln’s time, and they have brought some issues full circle in race relations. With the first black president in office, what was thought to be a post-racial period in our history has instead emboldened a fiery backlash by political opportunists and previously “in the closet” bigots. From talk-show hosts to elected officials, vile comments about minorities are made with impunity. Starting with right-wing shock jocks like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, who proclaimed soon after Obama was elected in 2008 that the president hated white people, an egregious trend began that has mushroomed to blaming young a black man (like Trayvon Martin) who wore a “hoodie” to be a villain rather than the murdered victim he was. Or former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani claiming the president doesn’t love America. And despite what many may see as the absurdities of these charges, surprisingly, this is rather a repetition of a physics axiom: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
President Barack Hussein Obama has won two presidential elections by wide margins, in 2008 and 2012. Still, America in many ways is as divided as it was Lincoln’s time. Obama and his family have been targeted by the right and by those with deeply held racial prejudices since he took office. This year, with Congress inviting a foreign leader to speak to a joint session without first consulting the president (as has always been done in the past), Speaker of the House John Boehner did an end run around protocol by inviting Benjamin Netanyahu. The Republican Senate then doubled down on this ostentatious disrespect for Obama when 47 Republican senators wrote to another foreign leader in an attempt to derail the U.S. and our bilateral partners in nuclear disarmament talks with Iran. What seemed unprecedented and unthinkable, interfering with foreign policy that always is set by the Commander-in-Chief and his Secretary of State, was done with not only malice to this president but with a zealotry that ignored the long-term damage to the Office of the President.
White and black America have long lived on different planes when it comes to education, opportunity, and treatment in the judicial system. Obama’s story is not only one of overcoming great odds to be a success from his time at Harvard as the editor of the Law Review to a community organizer that rose through the ranks and on to state senator, U.S. senator, and then becoming the first black president. It is a story that should be celebrated and, as President Obama has stated repeatedly, could only happen in the United States. Republicans are constantly preaching that the greatness of this country lies in the freedom and the ability for anyone to live the American Dream; Barack Obama has indeed done that.
And yet, blinded by a jealousy and primal hatred, the opposition to Obama’s policies have used his race to fester centuries-old bigotry. By their lack of calling out racism in their base, they have become an enabler to those would hate Obama for his skin color so fervently that they cannot decipher that programs like the Affordable Care Act, job programs, and raising the minimum wage are policies that are color blind. They help all Americans struggling to even have the audacity to believe there still is an American dream.
The backlash to President Obama in our period of history has been destructive. After 2008 and the worst recession since the Great Depression, America thirsted for hope and positive progress. By casting doubt with innuendo toward race and the lack of moral courage to let voters know that while they may disagree with policies of this president, they would not tolerate racism even if it meant costing votes for themselves, instead the Republicans and the right wing of this country have tried to quench the desire of most Americans to see government be a vehicle toward solutions. And in that process they have lowered the standard of common decency and respect no matter what future repercussions may come.