One of my favorite true-life parables is the story of Hungarian Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis. In the mid-1800s, Semmelweis worked in a maternity clinic where a large number of women died during childbirth. He believed that the problem was neither the medicine nor their treatments. Semmelweis believed that there were tiny little creatures living on the clinic’s medical instruments that were making the women sick. He tried to tell the people at the hospital that washing their hands and sterilizing their medical tools in a chlorine mixture would stop the spread of disease.
Everyone in the medical profession laughed at Dr. Semmelweis. If these “germs” were making people sick, why hadn’t they heard of them before? More importantly, why couldn’t they see them? Almost every medical professional thought it was a ridiculous theory, but Semmelweis never gave up. He told everyone who would listen about washing hands and sterilizing equipment, but no one listened to him.
When he was 47 years old, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis was committed to an insane asylum, where he died.
Whenever conservative-leaning Caucasians begin listing Barack Obama’s trespasses against America, they don’t get far before they reach the favorite claim of the faction that wants to “make America great again.” Nestled between their accusations of socialism and sympathizing with terrorists—just above charges of Obama’s madrassa education but below his Kenyan birth—is the most frequently recurring charge against Obama and his administration:
Barack Obama made race relations worse in America.
According to his detractors, during Obama’s presidency, racial animus between blacks and whites reached a fever pitch. He presided during the rise of Black Lives Matter. The riots in Ferguson, Mo., happened under his watch. The city of Baltimore burned during an uprising. Beyoncé turned black. Everything was falling apart.
From their perspective, if Obama gets credit for ending two wars, rescuing the country from the brink of economic collapse and rescuing the auto industry, then he should take the blame for the increasing racial tension that spread across the country during his tenure.
They see the constant marches, the side eyes they receive in Wal-Mart parking lots, the Colin Kaepernick protest, the anti-police sentiment and even the natural-hair movement as Obama’s fault, and they are upset about it. Before Obama sashayed his meddling ass into the Oval Office, white men were free to wave their Confederate flags, whisper racist jokes and touch whomever’s hair they damn well wanted.
Here’s the thing: They are probably right. Barack Obama did make race relations worse …
For white people.
Since its inception, black people have known that this country was sick, but America treated its race problem in the same way the white world has treated everything else. It’s why they feel comfortable teaching us that the Roman Empire ruled the world, even while richer, more advanced civilizations thrived around the globe. It’s why your third-grade social studies teacher can tell you that Christopher Columbus “discovered” a land that already had people, governments and even constitutions.
In the great book of rewritten history, white people invented the blind spot and peekaboo. In their eyes, nothing exists until they see it, and if they refuse to acknowledge it—then it doesn’t exist.
If Obama had not signed the Affordable Care Act, killed Osama bin Laden or saved the nation’s economy, the one thing for which he deserves credit is forcing America to confront its ideas about race and racism. He may not have explicitly championed Black Lives Matter or raised a black fist on the White House lawn, but his effect on the psyche of black America is undeniable.
Before the Obama administration, America could bury its head in the sand because black America knew there were no sympathetic ears inside the Bush regime, and Bill Clinton was too busy instituting mandatory minimums, advocating for unequal drug sentencing and ridding the country of “superpredators.” The Reagan administration was … well … the Reagan administration.
Then came Obama. The fact that a black man held the nation’s highest office forced a national self-examination of its sickness—whether it wanted to or not. Obama’s simple presence gave some white people the heebie-jeebies, and when they were confronted with unapologetic blackness, they weren’t just resistant, they were aghast. They couldn’t believe that Negroes would be so ungrateful for centuries of white benevolence that they would bicker about small details like income inequality, an unfair justice system, education disparities and police lynchings.
And it is all Obama’s fault. Caucasians say that Obama ruined race relations in the same way that law-enforcement officers say cellphone cameras ruined policing. They were trying to avoid it, but under Obama, black people kept waving white America’s past in its face. You know how black people are. They love bringing up old shit like prejudice.
They don’t want to talk about it, because it is an icky sordid past to confront, but the only people who will ever be negatively affected by the increasing dialogue about race in America are racists.
Just because wypipo ignored racial tension until 2008 doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. Just like Dr. Semmelweis, black America has been trying to tell them about it for years. We have seen the cause of the cancer, watched it spread and witnessed it snuffing out more black lives than anyone can imagine. We have screamed about the invisible disease at the top of our lungs, but they have laughed at us. They called us crazy. They even tried to blame it on Obama.
Yet they refuse to look at their own filthy hands.