In the nine months of Barack Obama’s presidency, he’s faced a highly vocal league of detractors: angry citizens shouting over officials at town hall meetings, thousands of “Tea Party” protestors gathering nationwide wielding anti-Obama signs, and conspiracy theorists who staunchly reject that the President is an American citizen.
Although the White House has downplayed the idea that the President’s race has anything to do with the criticism, national political debate has taken on a hostility that is discomfiting for many African-Americans. ESSENCE.com talked with civil rights activist, the Reverend Joseph Lowery, for his take on the role that race plays in anti-Obama sentiment–and how much it really matters.
ESSENCE.COM: Do you agree with former President Jimmy Carter’s comments that a significant number of these protestors really have a problem with a Black man serving as President?
REVEREND JOSEPH LOWERY: Yes, I do. I think he would be wrong to say that every protest or every ounce of hostility is based on race. But it would be insane to say that none of it is based on race because obviously some of these people are crying out of ignorance, and the flames of hatred are being fanned by a demagogue political leadership. A White professor at a college here in Georgia wrote the other day that White folks have been telling Black folks to “get over it” for a long time. He said now it’s time for Black folks to tell White folks, “Get over it.” (Laughs.) I think he’s just as right as Jimmy Carter.
ESSENCE.COM: Okay, so you think it is about race—but how much does that matter? Do you think this is something we should be fearful of, or is this pretty much what you expected to see after Obama was elected?
LOWERY: Historically every revolutionary movement has been met by a counterrevolution. Some have been fierce and lasting; others have been brief and spasmodic. How long this will last, and how intense it will get, remains to be seen. But we must recognize it for what it is, and we must stand up against it. We must not return hate for hate, or violence for violence. But we must be aware, we must be strong, and we must insist that we’re not going back. We’ve got to turn the corner on our complacency and stop acting as though the election of a Black President has ushered us into a post-racial era. It has produced a counter-revolution, and the community of conscience and community of faith must rise up and oppose it with all the resources at our command.
ESSENCE.COM: Opponents of the President have been more organized and vocal around their issues. What advice would you give to the other side?
LOWERY: We’ve got to exercise more initiative, and be more active than just reactive. Even some of our own forces have been divided. The Democrats will have themselves to blame if they don’t come together around this issue and allow themselves to be intimidated.
ESSENCE.COM: President Obama says opposition to him is largely not connected to his race. What do you think about his reluctance to make this a racial discussion?
LOWERY: He’s trying to take the high road. I think he has chosen a level of elevation that may be too high–he might need to come down just a little bit and deal with things a little more realistically. I understand his position, but the day calls for realism as well as taking the high road.