The decision by parents across the country to keep their children home from school today rather than have students listen to the President’s stay in school address follows an ugly pattern that began to emerge in the months since the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. Conservative opposition to Obama in elite political and media circles in recent weeks has turned into routine disgruntled post-election partisan bickering to vile anti-American and racist rhetoric.
From opposition to President Obama’s push for an Economic Stimulus bill in February, and disdain for his selection of Sonia Sotomayor to fill the Supreme Court vacancy, to contempt for his current campaign for health care reform, this voice of unreason has grown louder and more belligerent. The decision by conservative leaders to encourage parents to keep their children home from school today under the auspices that the president’s message is hellbent on socialist indoctrination, as Florida GOP Chairman Jim Greer claimed, is the latest manifestation.
The National Keep Your Child at Home Day follows a trend that most notably included the anti- Obama barbs thrown by former US Vice President Dick Cheney back in April. A vice president of an immediately previous administration speaking out within months of the transition of power is something unheard of in recent US history. (Former VP Al Gore waited for eight months before criticizing President George H.W. Bush).
Cheney’s departure from tradition was just the beginning. Since the new presidential administration has been underway, conservative leaders seem to have flipped from advocacy to derision on similar positions they supported under Republican presidents. The $700 Billion Wall Street Bailout was a necessary evil. But, for them, the $787 Billion Economic Stimulus marked the end of capitalism. Support for the war in Iraq under President Bush was pro-American. Under Obama, the idea of not criticizing a war president has been entirely abandoned.
Conservatives fought against Democratic Party attacks on President Ronald Reagan’s school address in 1988. Three year later, they similarly supported President George H.W. Bush’s school address. With President Obama in the White House, a president speaking to the nation’s students, instead summons up a return to the cold war—this time within our own borders.
Certainly conservative media is stoking the flames. Fox News’ Glen Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and Laura Ingraham, for example, have for months been ratcheting up the racist and cold war sentiment on their programs, suggesting that the president and his supporters vacillate between hating white people and fomenting socialist revolution.
Even as President Obama tries to strike a middle ground on healthcare and the high school address, conservative talkshow hosts, bloggers and some elected officials continue to escalate the antagonism, hostility and name calling (demonizing the president as Hitler and his team as communists, socialists, and Marxists).
These voices daily are helping to nurture an atmosphere of racial confrontation and in the process bring the hatred above ground. According to the February 2009 report of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups in the United States, the number of active hate groups (926 vs. 888 in 2007) in the US has grown by 54 percent since 2000. SPLC contributes this rise to immigration fears, a failing economy and the election of Barack Obama.
Likewise, the findings of a recent Pew Research Center poll suggest that the ways that racial opposition has been subtly, and not so subtly, infused in these debates is taking a toll on white Obama supporters as well. The survey found that among white Democrats, Obama’s approval rating has dropped 11 points since April. Among white independents it’s dropped 9 points, and among white women it’s dropped 12 percentage points.
Barack Obama’s loss of white supporters may bode well for a GOP win in 2012. However, is breeding racial hostility in the best interest of a nation increasingly diverse, racially, culturally and in terms of political perspectives?
During the height of the 2008 election when a similar trend emerged, Newt Gingrich made a public call for conservatives to turn down the anti-American and racist rhetoric. The country needs his or like leadership now.
At a bare minimum, such leadership should remind conservatives across the board that ideological differences with the new commander in chief is no excuse to abandon core principles of our Democratic Republic—especially when your opinions and beliefs represent the minority.
Bakari Kitwana is senior media fellow at the Harvard Law –based think tank The Jamestown Project and the author of the forthcoming Hip-Hop Activism in the Obama Era.