Our country has been engaged in a national dialogue on race since the election of the nation’s first black president in 2008. Barack Obama’s supporters and opposition have both been accused of being motivated primarily by race, but one topic that has not been discussed is what factor race would have played if our first black president was a Republican. A deeper analysis of this issue reveals a great deal about the prisms through which we see race and politics in our culture.
The degree to which race would impact the country’s acceptance of a black Republican president would depend on both policy and personality. A black conservative president would fashion a cultural and political reality almost completely contrary to the one created by Barack Obama’s presidency. White conservatives would be some of the black president’s most ardent supporters, while black progressives would be among his fiercest critics. One only need consult the chapters in the black conservative playbook that pertain to race to understand why.
Black conservatives typically give passing acknowledgement to the existence of racism while noting its relatively minimal impact on the lives and opportunities of African-Americans. More aggressive tactics involve deploying emotionally-charged racial rhetoric to exploit race for their own gain. One example includes portraying the Democratic party as a plantation, blacks as its slaves, and Republicans as liberators. Use of the term “high-tech lynching” — famously deployed by Clarence Thomas during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings — is also a reliable weapon against liberals.
Contrary to their rhetoric, the conservative establishment is not colorblind. It is acutely aware of race and ethnicity and has been very accepting of minorities who adhere to its ideological principles and rhetoric. A black Republican president would give conservatives a spokesperson who could address issues of race without fear of being subjected to accusations of racism. The president would be safe as long he kept his focus solely on liberals. Herman Cain’s “Ni**erhead” experience during his 2012 presidential campaign is an example of how even the most superficial criticism of Republican rhetoric or policy related to race can prove problematic for black conservatives.
African Americans are a key component of the Democratic Party’s base, so it would be no surprise if a black conservative president was frequently challenged by progressive black elected officials and activists. What draws the ire of many African-Americans is the perception that black conservatives advance policies that are harmful to blacks and use black liberals as a scapegoat to curry favor with white voters and establishment figures. These conversations often move beyond simple policy discussions and can get very personal, encompassing a range of emotions from quiet contempt to open hostility. Conversely, white liberals might find themselves being more careful in their critique of a black Republican president due to fears of being labeled racist by right-wing pundits and media figures.
Contrary to GOP orthodoxy, Barack Obama’s supporters, particularly African-Americans, are not simple, unsophisticated voters who backed him simply because he is black. This notion has gained traction in conservative circles even though it is totally baseless and counter-factual. African-Americans also overwhelmingly supported the previous two Democratic candidates for president — Al Gore and John Kerry — each of whom won about 90 percent of the black vote. African-Americans voted at a record high in 2008 but only after Barack Obama proved he was a viable candidate. African-Americans, both elected officials and voters, were reluctant to jump on the Obama bandwagon early on in his candidacy because it was hard to imagine him unseating the presumptive nominee, Hillary Clinton. At that point racial solidarity and pride took a backseat to political pragmatism.
The intersection of race and politics is an inherently complicated topic. The country’s relationship with our first black president is dictated by more than just his race alone. Whether you support or oppose him, his personality, policy positions, tone and rhetoric, wife and family, and cultural upbringing all play a part in how we see Barack Obama. If the first black president were instead a conservative, descendant of slaves from Alabama, and frequent critic of the Democratic party and the effect of its principles on African-Americans, the conversations about race would be just as complex. Whites who say they oppose President Obama on policy grounds would likely support a black conservative president, while a black Republican president’s liberal detractors would be forced to counter allegations of racism from conservatives by constantly reminding the public that their disagreements with the POTUS are on ideological grounds.
The level of personal investment and support among African-Americans for President Obama is due to what he represents to us — devoted husband and father, brilliant orator, astute politician, and transformational leader. A person whose very presence is a repudiation of the negative stereotypes that have been pressed into our collective psyche since the beginning of this nation’s history. African-Americans see this and identify with it, and are protective of him when his opponents try to attack his character and exploit deep-seated racial fears and anxieties for their political gain.