Race and Obama - the taboo topic

Mark Mardell
North America editor
@BBCMarkMardellon Twitter

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The Reverend Tim McDonald pops open the boot of his car to get to the tools of his trade.

Among the usual junk you find in the back of a car there is a Bible and a megaphone. The preacher is a veteran of the civil rights movement.

He used to be a chauffeur for Martin Luther King's father and he is always ready for a demonstration, helped out by his trusty bull-horn.

For him, the battle for black equality is not history. It is an everyday, living, continuing struggle. He sees this election as part of that.

"It's not just an election about Mitt Romney and President Obama - this is an election about what direction our nation is going to head in, whether we're going to move forward or whether we're going to step back into the past. The past that was filled with racism and hate and denial."

Whatever the result of that election, President Obama has earned his place in the history books.

Whatever else he achieves for good or ill, the first line of his entry in any encyclopaedia will be the fact he became the first African-American president of the US, a country founded on slavery that fought a civil war to end it, but was still riven until late into the last century by state-supported racism.

But what has the first black president meant to black Americans? Mr McDonald says President Obama has already achieved a lot.

"I think he's done a tremendous amount, not only for African Americans but for all Americans - just as I don't agree with the notion that Dr King was only for African Americans, I think he changed the landscape for all Americans.

"I think Obama has changed the landscape for all America, but most particularly for Americans of colour, and there is no way of denying that or getting around that."

We are talking in a church car park in Atlanta, Georgia, just yards away from Martin Luther King's tomb where an eternal flame burns. It says on it that it symbolises "the continuing effort to realize his ideals".

But you cannot eat ideals and while there is legal equality now, there is no economic equality.

This area of Atlanta, Sweet Auburn, was known in the 50s, in the language of the time as "the richest Negro street in the world".

It does not seem very rich now. There are a few new shops and restaurants opening up, but even more where the windows are covered in cardboard. The signs are rusty and broken.

Since Mr Obama became president, the economic plight for African Americans seems to have got worse. Black unemployment in the US has rocketed to 15% since he came to power, a record 36% live in poverty.

But Atlanta's Mayor Kasim Reed says you cannot judge what President Obama has done by looking at the figures alone.

image captionThe prosperity of the past is a distant memory

"Every serious person knows that African-American unemployment and achievement has had a lag behind the majority communities, so when the overall community suffers, black people will suffer disproportionately. That's exactly what you're seeing right now.

"But in the teeth of these challenging times, black people know and understand that this president is someone who has a heart for the African-American community, and knows when he helps poor people and working people, that when he expands healthcare to 30 million Americans, he doesn't have to say that it was done to help black people," he says.

"If you are a black person who has gone through extended unemployment, unemployment benefit for those who are hurting has been extended more than it has at any time in the last 20 years. He doesn't have to say he did that for poor folks or rural folks.

"We're also smart enough to know and understand that if the president, who's the president for all our citizens, was to target the African-American community for a specific initiative or programme beyond the overall welfare of our citizens, that would be politically deadly for him and would likely cost him the presidency."

This is an interesting point - that the first black president really cannot afford to talk about race. He has done so on occasions and it is usually controversial.

It was seen as a gaffe when he backed a black professor who was picked up by police for "breaking in" to his own home. Saying that Trayvon Martin would look like his son, if he had one, was controversial.

So I ask Mayor Reed if I have understood him correctly - that the president cannot afford to talk about what he is doing to help black people.

"I think that that's the case," he says. "I think that."

In Sweet Auburn, one small-businessman agrees. In Mikel Madison's little shop, vividly coloured stripped-down bikes hang like art installations. He admits the economy is not exactly vibrant.

"I think the only thing that's good about Obama being in, it just didn't get burnt to the ground," he says.

"I think if the Republicans would have been in, it would have just been off the cliff - burnt to the ground. Trickle-down economics would have continued, and we couldn't have done another four years of that.

"If they get back in they're just going to try and get back in that direction. I guess I'll just have to sell to millionaires and billionaires then."

The area is filled with murals of the faces of black American heroes, Martin Luther King and others, icons of a movement.

President Obama is an icon, too, and African-American parents usually mention how good it is to have someone as a role model, who is not a sports or hip-hop star. Mr Madison, whose son is celebrating his 10th birthday the day we visit, is no exception.

"It's been inspirational. It's been a good role model for black men in general, just being a great family man, being articulate, being very pragmatic, it shows a different role model that black men have not really been given."

He recalls his own school days.

"I grew up in a suburban-type atmosphere, and we were bussed to the inner city. Since me and a couple of other kids came from the suburbs, maybe we spoke a little more proper, had a more extensive vocabulary. We were [seen as] white boys.

"The thing is, if you come off intelligent that means you're somehow selling out, that you're white. You have to talk hood, talk ignorant, dumb yourself down to be considered black and that's sickening.

"With Obama not doing that, it's been very refreshing and a good example."

For many opponents, President Obama is also an icon - a symbol of everything that is wrong with their country, a man who is destroying the essence of America, trying to turn it into something it is not, and should not be. It is a sentiment I have heard repeatedly from California to the Carolinas.

Mr McDonald sees only one explanation for this fury.

"Most of the opposition that President Obama is receiving is not because of the policies, it's not because of the issues, it's because of race, because he's black," he says. "I believe that fundamentally in my heart.

"Some of the same proposals that he has put forward are the same proposals the Republican administration kept putting forward several years ago, and now because an African-American president is putting them forward they're no longer good policies, they're no longer good ideas.

"And so you don't have to just go around hopping on the issue of race in America, it is here. It is blatant, it is all over the place and we see it every day."

He says that is true of the presidential election itself.

"This is a race election. This is not a policy election or an issue election. There are going to be those who say it's not, but when you burn the president in an effigy… there are certain things that have happened with President Obama that have never happened in the history of our country and there ain't but one different factor - his race. He's black."

Michael McNeely thinks that is nonsense. He is that rare bird, an African-American Republican, president of the Georgia black Republican council, in a country where 90% of black voters are Democrats. He says the dislike of President Obama is about his ideas.

"I don't agree that the attacks on Obama are because of his race," he says.

"The focus is there because he is the first black president, so people often automatically attribute those attacks to that if you will, but I don't see it that way and a lot of other people don't.

"What is happening is people are passionate. There's a difference of opinion. There is a different ideology about how to do things; how the country should be run; how to improve the economy and have an opportunity for individuals.

"That's what we're talking about - not personal attacks, not racially motivated attacks, but getting to the core of the issues.

"The same arguments would be made if the president were white, Asian, Hispanic, doesn't matter. The fundamental differences are true and they're there. They're not racial."

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This is a subject that the American media often skirts around. Some seem to consider even discussing race a taboo. Politicians who mention it are inevitably seen as blundering into a minefield. Joe Biden's comments about "shackles" were widely derided, although some black people welcomed them.

The Trayvon Martin case became political as soon as Mr Obama talked about it, inspiring a brilliant article by Ta-Nehisi Coates called Fear of a black president.

This is difficult to unpick. It seems obvious to me some of the opposition to Mr Obama is because he is black.

Common sense tells me not all the children and grandchildren of those spitters have become converts to equal opportunities.

There is a political edge to this. Republicans who cry foul when race is mentioned are still heirs to the electoral benefits of Nixon's Southern strategy - a deliberate and highly successful attempt to court the white Southerners who felt abandoned by Lyndon Johnson's Democrats.

I am not suggesting today's Republicans use such tactics, merely that when the long-engrained Southern habit of voting Democrats was broken it stayed broken.

Nowadays there are those who do sometimes accuse the Tea Party of racism.

I have been to many Tea Party rallies and seen little or no evidence of it. I have got to know some Tea Party activists well and am convinced their heartfelt opposition to President Obama is based on economics and the constitution, and that they are not racists.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe 2008 election sparked celebrations in Harlem

Just occasionally you get a glimmer of what some might say in private, far from any cameras or microphones. I have sat around a dinner table with a woman who espoused the need to deal with the deficit and her love for the constitution and then went on to call President Obama a monkey who was giving "our" money to "them".

So it is difficult to draw conclusions, and hard to discern the truth. In one way, while President Obama's election was a symbol of healing, for some it was a provocation.

Some of the opposition to President Obama is not so much about race directly, but about the way the country is changing from a place where all immigrants, even those who came in chains, are welcome as long as they adopted the mores of white Protestants, to one where other ethnic identities are equally valid.

The core political debate about the redistribution of wealth is sharpened by redistribution to people who "are not like us".

Whatever happens in November, the debate about the meaning of President Obama to America's race relations will not go away.

If President Obama wins, it will be due in part to reactivating the 2008 alliance - and black voters made up a big part of that coalition. He may feel freer in a second term to talk about delicate issues and reflect on whether he has been a bridge or created a wider chasm.

If, on the other hand, he loses, many African Americans will take it personally, will be worried and hurt, and see the result as another reverse in their long struggle.

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