Appeals to race remain popular at both ends of the political spectrum. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) on May 13 called President Obama "the most successful food stamp president in American history." And Princeton Professor Cornel West, in a May 16 interview with Truthdig, called Obama "a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats."
Gingrich also said, "I always say that to become an American citizen, immigrants ought to have to learn American history. [Applause.] But maybe we should also have a voting standard that says to vote, as a native-born American, you should have to learn American history. [Applause.] You realize how many of our high school graduates, because of the decay of the educational system, couldn't pass a citizenship test."
That statement, ironically, is likeliest to persuade those unfamiliar with voting-rights history. Poll tests were barred by the 1965 Voting Rights Act because they were used to deny black people the vote. And as Gingrich must know, the citizenship test for immigrants already includes history questions. His rhetorical ploy is doubly noxious. First, he ignores brutal discrimination that occurred in his own lifetime. Second, he deplores the alleged ignorance of others while spreading misinformation himself and overlooking his own party's current thralldom to Know-Nothingism. After the speech, he denied blowing racist dog whistles; but of course deniability is the whole point of dog-whistle politics.
As for Professor West, his nasty line about "a black mascot for Wall Street oligarchs" prompts the question of who pays his salary at Princeton.
I heard the same insult against Obama on election night in 2008 from comedian Dick Gregory, who, in a phone call with Sirius/XM radio host Mark Thompson, spouted his agit-prop about Obama being a corporate puppet. I was present for the call and excoriated Gregory for not even pausing to celebrate the historic moment, but he was all smugness and contempt.
Fifteen months later, I was in Thompson's studio for the 2010 State of the Union address. One of the other guests was a black conservative who called Obama a socialist. I challenged him on that point and he replied, "You judge a man by the company he keeps." I said, "Bernanke?" which made everyone else laugh.
The contradictory caricatures of our 44th president would be merely silly and tiresome had the political fringe not taken center stage with the Tea Party's success in the 2010 election. As Obama is either reduced to his blackness or called not black enough by ideologues and opportunists who would rather inflame bigots than govern, it's as if the mere fact that Obama speaks a thing changes its color.
The multiracial Obama loosens hardened categories, and racialists don't know what to do with him. His rejection of the fake revolutionary posturing favored by some tenured Black Studies professors infuriates West, whose conspiracy-tinged portrayal of him as a corporate tool shows West no more able than Rush Limbaugh to appreciate the breakthrough that Obama's presidency represents.
As Colby King writes in The Washington Post, "There simply is no black or white way to wage war against terrorism, address global warming, compete with China, bring peace to the Middle East or reduce the national debt. Just as there is no black or white way to think about abortion, gay marriage or the nuclear threat."
Undeterred by the catcalls, Obama keeps his cool while throwing his share of elbows as he plays the rough game of politics that is part of his job. No doubt he would prefer having nice things said about him. But, surveying Republicans' self-immolation as the 2012 election looms, one cannot help thinking: Winning is the best revenge.
Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.