When it comes to racism, our country remains awkward about trying to define what it is and when it really happens.
Racism isn’t what it used to be. Back in the day, it was a horrible in-your-face humiliation hurled for reasons that included fear, insecurity, hate or an utter lack of decency.
Today, the word "racism" is used so flippantly in politics that, often, it dilutes its true heinous intent.
Race has taken political center-stage once more with generalizations that all people who participate in Tea Party events are racists because they oppose President Barack Obama’s policies.
Racism also often is cited by Washington insiders as the reason for the downward trajectory of Obama’s public approval.
Yet racism has nothing to do with Obama’s falling numbers – or, for that matter, those of Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, who also is black.
Both men were given the benefit of doubt when elected to their positions. Only now, after having an opportunity to witness their behavior and performance, have people decided that they don’t approve of the job they are doing.
Racists never would have given either man an opportunity to begin with. Americans being dissatisfied with both men and their performance has more to do with these individuals than with their skin color.
The real story for both Obama and Steele is the same as that for many high-profile (and usually white) politicians. They began with high expectations and then their approval ratings fell over time, as people got to know them.
Compare fellow Democrat Howard Dean with Obama.
In 2004, Dean’s presidential campaign was running high and then higher still – but, after Iowa, he fell and fell.
Obama was widely popular in Iowa and in every caucus after that. Yet what people forget is that he lost to Hillary Clinton in most primary races from February on; he won the party’s super-delegates in the caucuses but lost the popular vote.
Now compare Dean as chairman of the Democratic National Committee with Steele.
Dean was controversial – he said some wild things – but was well-regarded by party activists. The media reported his fights with Rahm Emanuel, then head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and it questioned Dean because the DNC under him spent a lot of money. Yet, after the successful midterm election of 2006, Dean was given the credit for his 50-state strategy. (Steele may be on that same trajectory, especially if the 2010 midterm election goes well for
Obama and Steele are both being treated exactly as Dean was. So how much does race really have to do with anything?
There is the possibility that race helped Steele and Obama get in the door, although that is difficult to prove. Certainly statements by Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, and Vice President Joe Biden suggest that party higher-ups might have been thinking along these lines.
Prejudging someone because they are part of a particular group cuts both ways: The majority of people who attend or who are in some way inspired by the Tea Party movement have been dumbfounded to find themselves being generalized as ignorant, racist, right-wing trailer trash — all pre-judgments based on media portrayals of their events.
That portrayal is becoming a dangerous axiom.
For the majority of people attending Tea Party events, the movement has nothing to do with Obama the man and everything to do with the federal government’s deficit spending that began under President George W. Bush and has grown under President Obama.
These people are even madder at Congress – which, by the way, is overwhelmingly comprised of white men.
A healthy debate about where today’s policies are taking our country can never materialize if the word "racism" is thrown around at the drop of a hat.
I am fairly certain that Barack Obama would prefer to be judged on the merits of his policies than on an overboard protection of the color of his skin.