Just weeks after President Obama attempted to bridge a national divide over the George Zimmerman verdict, the rhetoric surrounding race in America is increasingly hot. In the last month, several ugly episodes surrounding anti-Obama protests have prompted bipartisan denunciations, and ignited debate over the role of race in conservative opposition to the president. During the same period, Republican officials have excoriated prominent Democrats over remarks on race that they consider inflammatory.
This weekend, a state fair in Missouri featured a rodeo clown dressed as President Obama. According to one widely shared account by an attendee, "the crowd went wild" after announcers asked who wanted to see Obama "run down by a bull." The attendee, Perry Beam, likened the scene to "some kind of Klan rally."
As word of the incident spread, organizers apologized and politicians from both parties lined up to condemn the taxpayer-funded performance. "The concept of an angry bull attempting to trample a black man for the amusement of a crowd is neither entertaining nor funny and is not the type of behavior that our taxpayer-subsidized State Fair should promote," House Democratic Minority Leader Jake Hummel and Assistant Minority Leader Gail McCann Betty said in a joint statement. They called for an inquiry into "whether continued taxpayer funding is appropriate for an event that allows such racist actions to occur.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, said she expects "someone to be held accountable" for the rodeo.
That was just one of several especially virulent displays of anti-Obama fury that drew national attention in recent days. In Phoenix last Tuesday, a protest of Obama's visit included a chorus of "Bye, bye, black sheep!" According to The Arizona Republic, one person shouted "he's 47 percent Negro!" while another raised a sign reading "Impeach the Half-White Muslim!" This weekend, Obama faced a similar greeting in Orlando, Fla., as several dozen protesters lined his motorcade route, including one whose sign read "Kenyan Go Home!"
The "birther" movement questioning Obama's legitimacy peaked in 2011 after Donald Trump explored a presidential campaign centered around the conspiracy theory, prompting the president to release his long-form birth certificate to decisively rebut the false claim. But it's most definitely still alive, and not just in Trump's Twitter feed. Republican members of Congress are facing questions at town halls this week over the issue, and two GOP lawmakers, Ted Yoho of Florida and Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma, attracted special attention when they appeared to agree with attendees' concerns. Yoho said he endorsed a bill to investigate Obama's origins because "if it is true, it's illegal, he shouldn't be there and we can get rid of everything he's done." Mullin tried to convince a birther audience member that her cause was a "dead issue ", but ended up telling her “I believe what you’re saying" before explaining how her cause was counterproductive. A spokeswoman for Mullin later clarified that he is not a "birther" and claimed he had been misinterpreted.
Amid this backdrop, some Democrats have suggested that Obama's presidency is drawing a unique brand of opposition in part because of his race. Many African American lawmakers and activists are especially galled by nationwide Republican efforts to place new restrictions on voting, such as voter ID requirements, that would disproportionately impact minorities. The recent decision by the Supreme Court to void parts of the Voting Rights Act brought many of these concerns to the forefront of the national debate.
"It's been obvious that they're doing everything they can to make him fail," Majority Leader Harry Reid told a Nevada radio host on Friday. "And I hope, I hope—and I say this seriously—I hope that's based on substance and not the fact that he's African American."
That comment struck Republican officials as a cheap shot. Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, called it "offensive" and "insane." Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only African American in the Senate, said in a statement that he was "sincerely disappointed by continued attempts to divide the American people by playing to the lowest common denominator."
Reid's jab was considerably lighter than one leveled by Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, who told The Daily Beast earlier this month that tea party activists were "the same group we faced in the south with those white crackers and the dogs and the police."
Race has long been a touchy subject among grassroots conservatives. The tea party movement faced frequent accusations of racism when it first bubbled up in 2009 thanks to signs and chants along the lines of this summer's Phoenix and Orlando protests . Activists, in turn, accused their critics of using isolated incidents to unfairly tar their entire movement. Tea party supporters point to the popularity of minority candidates from Herman Cain to Marco Rubio to Ted Cruz as proof their opposition to the president's agenda isn't based on prejudice. President Clinton faced plenty of opposition to his agenda as well, including his unsuccessful push for universal health care. He also generated his own share of outlandish conspiracy theories.
It might be naive to suggest lifelong conservatives would abandon their objections to Democratic policy on taxes, health care, or the environment if only the president were white. But as suggested by these latest episodes —as well as Sen. Rand Paul's ongoing struggle to understand why having a neo-Confederate aide on the payroll was problematic—it seems at least as naive to pretend there aren't flavors of opposition steeped in racist rhetoric as well.