By Jay Bookman
As protests turned into riots here in Atlanta and elsewhere Friday night, as leaders such as Killer Mike, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Police Chief Erika Shields stepped forward in a time of crisis, Americans were once again searching for answers to the age-old question of race and racial division.
On Fox News, the search for a villain settled quickly on Barack Obama.
Looking solemnly into the camera, his thin patrician lips drawn tight, Tucker Carlson let it fly.
“President Obama has long been – no one wants to say it but it’s true – America’s chief racial arsonist.”
Let’s talk about that, because it tells us a lot about how we came to this moment. And let’s start with the plain fact that Obama has done nothing to worsen race relations except to get himself elected as a black man to the presidency.
That’s all it took. That was his entire damn crime. Obama may be Ivy League-educated, a family man, humane and smart, a man whose instinct is to heal not hurt. But he is a black man let loose in the White House and that made some people lose their ever-loving minds.
But you see, that’s how racism works. If a black man makes you feel uncomfortable, then he’s the one responsible. He’s causing your racism. In Obama’s case, he made himself as non-threatening as any self-respecting black man could possibly be, but it wasn’t enough; it could never be enough. He made people racists.
The truth is that racism is always here among us, like a virus that never goes away, and it makes us all sick. The idea that it doesn’t exist unless and until black people and other people of color provoke it or point it out is one of the more damaging lies in American public life, but it’s useful because it lets white people off the hook.
However, if Obama’s election set off deep-seated fears and resentments among many white Americans, those emotions have been validated, encouraged and compounded by politicians and media figures who recognized opportunity when they saw it, and who have no morals or principles that might prevent them from seizing it.
In calling Obama “America’s chief racial arsonist,” Carlson would have us react to our 44th president as if he were some nightmare combination of Malcolm X, Nat Turner and the 16-year-old black kid come to date your daughter. And that tells us a lot more about Carlson than it does about the target of his hatred.
To borrow his metaphor, Carlson is the nerdy guy who mysteriously shows up first at every five-alarm fire, the seemingly innocent on-looker who’s transfixed by the blaze yet reeks of gasoline fumes and has a lighter in his pocket.
Night after night, he gleefully pours accelerant on the racial fears and resentments of older white Americans and then cashes a very nice check for doing so. That’s his job, and he does it well and seems to enjoy it. (Corporate America, that’s what you subsidize by advertising on Fox.)
All of which brings us in turn to Donald Trump, and to this difficult moment in our history. I’ve seen conservatives try to explain away their responsibility for the rise of Trump by claiming that Obama did it, that it’s Obama’s fault.
Just as the black man caused racism, he caused Trump. There’s actually some truth to that. Donald Trump is the backlash. Donald Trump in the White House is living proof that racism makes people do some of the most stupid, self-destructive stuff that you could ever imagine.
If you think the looters are crazy for venting their anger and frustration in ways that destroy their own neighborhoods, well, white voters did pretty much the same thing to the whole country in 2016, when they elected an incompetent ass like Trump as our president.
They were angry, they were disenchanted, and they wanted to see it burn. Congratulations, you got your wish.
Jay Bookman is a columnist for the Georgia Recorder, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this column first appeared.