Editor’s Note: John McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy and music history at Columbia University and is the author of “The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
John McWhorter: The election of President Obama wasn't the only big thing that happened in 2008
Social media took off, enabling people with extreme views to reach large audiences, he says
Is it true that what has Trump supporters so riled up is, at heart, that a black man has been running the country since 2008?
According to this idea, so much for the post-racial society Obama’s election was supposed to herald. Instead, America’s race discussion is more heated than it was before 2008, more whites feel they are discriminated against because they are white and at the root of this must be that such people just can’t get used to the idea the President is black. They sense this as an upending of the old “order.”
Smart people had a similar analysis of why the tea party emerged, and now this view is set to be a standard summation of what President Obama’s impact on America’s race discussion has been. In seeming support, Trump kicked off his new “political” guise by insistently questioning whether Obama was born in the United States, and now both Trump and his supporters are even given to saying Obama has been racially “divisive.” Recently Trump intoned in Orlando, “We have a terrible President who happens to be African-American – there has never been a greater division … than what we have right now.”
So obviously, Obama at the helm is central to why this modestly educated white cohort is so angry. When they say, “I want my country back,” they mean a country where a black man isn’t running it. But is it that obvious? Something becomes true neither because it just feels right, nor because one senses oneself as Doing the Right Thing to proclaim it.
Certainly this crowd are angry about their economic misery in a post-industrial economy, about the coddling of big banks, and even about race-related issues such as immigration. And just as certainly their sentiments often include the venting of old-fashioned Archie Bunker racism of a kind we might like to think of as in retreat. But is the particular fact that the President is black really so irritating to them that it plays a significant role in getting them out into stadiums with placards snarling into the cameras?
Something else happened in 2008
A prime argument for assuming so is that, of course, it was after Obama’s election in 2008 that the race conversation took on a newly acrid tone. It’s hardly crazy to suppose that this proves that Obama himself was the cause of what ails us. However, there is something else that happened to change radically at exactly the time Obama was elected, for reasons unconnected to him. I refer to social media.
Namely, 2008 and 2009 were when Twitter and especially Facebook became default platforms of ordinary Americans’ communication. Facebook users doubled from 2007 to 2008, and then more than tripled in 2009. The figures correspond with casual memory: if you think about it, 2008 was the year it became default to assume someone was on Facebook, such that even your parents were on it and so on. Meanwhile, in 2007, there were only 400,000 tweets per quarter, but 100 million per quarter a year later, and by early 2010, 50 million tweets per day!
Those two platforms alone have revolutionized the American conversation about, well, everything. And it barely requires argument at this point that personal postings into the ether 24/7, often targeted to groups of like mind riling one another up in their respective echo chambers, has made sociopolitical talk meaner. When people can gab at one another unceasingly, a lot of the chatter is going to spring from the lesser aspects of our natures.
This means that Obama’s election wasn’t the only thing that happened in 2008 that could have kicked off populist, xenophobic fury. That year it also became possible to vent in wider forums beefs you once largely kept to yourself and your friends.
All accept that Twitter and Facebook have been central to forging indignity about cop killings of black people into a national movement, such that even a pop singer like Beyoncé channels the concerns of Black Lives Matter into a Super Bowl performance. The same media have focused white populist fury in the same way. In the logical sense, there is no need to think Obama was the spark.
Note that this counteranalysis questions not just the liberal but the Trumpian take on Obama. To the extent that the TeaTrumpians think of Obama as having been racially divisive, they, too, are missing the role of technology in shaping and tincturing public discussion. So, liberal writers might use such people as proof that Obama was the cause when they say that Obama has roiled up the race discussion.
You might shake your head that such commenters see a “divider” in a President who has been so timid on race that black commentators themselves dogpile on him regularly. But they are making the same mistake liberals are: assuming it was all about a person because technology is quieter, more abstract, and even less viscerally compelling. Note also: Being angry (and mistaken) that Obama is a divider is different from being angry to have seen him sworn in.
Even Trump’s pushing the birther business fits under this explanation. Like many of his flock he saw an angry race conversation around him – and it was angry indeed even before Obama was actually elected, and more so by 2009 – and found it easier to imagine a person responsible for the changes around him than social history and technology.
A thought experiment
It could be, then, that our race discussion would be the same as it is now even if the President weren’t black. Hold on – that’s not as crazy as it may sound. Let’s try a thought experiment.
Imagine that a John Edwards, as in a hypothetical version of the former senator who didn’t get mired in a scandal, becomes President in 2008. The same kinds of race-related things happen under his administration that have happened under Obama’s. A black teenager gets killed by a self-appointed neighborhood watchman, another black teen gets shot by a police officer after an altercation through the cop car window, and new social media technology assure that the whole nation knows about these incidents and what happens in their wake, whereas just a few years before they could have remained local events barely discussed beyond where they happened. Note: Obama had nothing to do with those events happening, and so it’s quite plausible the same kinds of things would have happened under Edwards.
A national social movement called Black Lives Matter emerges in response to killings like these, and makes their positions known quite loudly at various events featuring liberal and leftist speakers. Then meanwhile, writers like Michelle Alexander and Ta-Nehisi Coates write hard-charging books read by millions about law enforcement and black people. A black academic like Melissa Harris-Perry has a national talk show on a network which, at least for a spell, highlights leftist political positions.
Now: Under these circumstances, would Donald Trump have fewer supporters because the President was white?
For most readers the answer here will not seem easy. This, and only this, is why it may be that what mainly animates this racist rage is how America can talk to itself.
Of course there are whites who wish the President weren’t black. But treating that as the wind beneath Trump’s wings, despite its nyah-nyah appeal, is a hasty take on something perhaps less dramatic, if no less unpleasant.
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