Vann R. Newkirk II writes: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Barack Obama’s election as the first black president was supposed to usher in a golden “post-racial” age but instead was met with racial conflict, a battle Obama failed, in his role as conciliator-in-chief, to either predict or control. The conflict has blossomed into a war, producing Donald Trump’s racial-angst-fueled campaign and the anger of Black Lives Matter protesters. At the heart of this racial conflict is Obama’s divisive presidency.
If that storyline sounds familiar, it’s the tack that many analyses have taken as they try to tease apart the interconnected issues of race and politics. It’s an exercise––an important one––that writers attempt every few months. Two years ago, commentators chronicled “unrest over race” in Obama’s legacy, and even before that speculated at racial tensions or unrest that might ensue should he ever lose an election. One recent column by Peniel Joseph in the Washington Post chronicles Obama’s failure to stop the “open warfare” of racial conflict during his term in office.
One reason these attempts to grapple with race and Obama’s presidency recur so often is that they usually can’t quite pull together a unified theory. Perhaps the moving pieces are just too complicated to analyze while they are still moving; perhaps they appear deceptively simple. But maybe some of the difficulty in talking about race today is attributable to the unhelpful euphemisms of “racial conflict,” “racial tension,” and other phrases that suggest an equal amount of instigation across racial groups, if not a perfectly balanced battle. But not all “racial conflicts” or “racially fraught” sentiments are the same. Equating them even via casual euphemism dilutes the potency of a truth that has undergirded every aspect of American society for as long as American society has existed.
It is tempting to try to conceptualize American culture as a theater of war, with battles fought between well-equipped factions over the future of the dominant identity. This conceptualization of political conflict animates arguments about everything from political correctness on college campuses to the tensions at the heart of Bernie Sanders’s political revolution. And at some level, especially when discussing differing factions of white men, it works. But the idea of political conflict as a pitched battle proves inadequate when it fails to take into account the power gradients that have been woven into the fabric of the country. That is especially true of race. [Continue reading…]