Race takes center stage

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The killing by police of an unarmed black teenager in a St. Louis suburb has put race at the forefront of the political debate, just months before the midterm elections.

The death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., at the hands of a police officer who has not yet been named — apparently for his own safety — is just the latest racially charged incident roiling political waters.

It follows the death of Eric Garner, an African-American who died after being placed in a choke hold by New York City police officers, and the insistence by Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala) that liberals are engaged in a “war on whites.”

There are other political currents that also have a racial component: Democrats have long complained that President Obama is subject to unprecedented disrespect from opponents because of the color of his skin — a charge that dates back at least to Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) heckling Obama with the shout of “You lie!” during a 2009 address to a joint session of Congress.

Attorney General Eric Holder last month said flatly that “racial animus” was responsible for “a certain level of vehemence” in the criticism that he and Obama had received.

Even if those charges are sincerely laid, they have the potential to energize African-American voters in the run-up to the midterm elections.

The comments by Holder and other Democrats have also angered Republicans, who perceive Democrats as constantly playing a race card against them.

“The willingness of the Obama administration to stoke racial divisions for political gain is astounding,” Wall Street Journal opinion writer Jason L. Riley wrote in a column about Holder’s comments.

Brown’s death led to a statement on Tuesday by President Obama, who called the shooting “heartbreaking.” 

While noting that the Department of Justice is examining the circumstances around the killing, Obama sought to calm inflamed passions, urging people to “remember this young man through reflection and understanding” and to “talk with one another in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”

That careful response perhaps reflects the experience of a president who has been burned before on matters involving race and policing. Early in his tenure Obama said that Cambridge, Mass., police had “acted stupidly” in arresting Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his own home. After fierce criticism, Obama convened a “beer summit” at the White House with Gates and the officer who had arrested him. 

“Each time the president has spoken out in cases involving violence against African-Americans, the backlash has been so strong,” said writer and broadcaster Earl Ofari Hutchinson. “I think the president has become extremely cautious about making any statements in racially charged situations.”

Democrats have been playing up the possibility that Republicans could seek to impeach Obama. But the GOP believes the tactic is motivated by a desire to bring black voters, and other solidly liberal groups, to the polls in November.

Heavy turnout by African-Americans helped propel Obama to victory in 2008 and 2012, and helped Democrats down the ballot, but black turnout is expect to be lower in the midterm election.

On Monday, Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) suggested during a Twitter town hall that, if the Republicans held on to their House majority, “Obama will be impeached.” 

To many observers, that read like a call to rally to the defense of the president’s party.

“The whole ‘impeach Obama’ thing is a huge red herring that has been ramped up by the Democrats for their own reasons, to try to position the Republicans as even crazier right-wingers than previously,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications. 

Even some Democrats are not fully persuaded by the impeachment argument.

“There are certain voters who you can turn out through fear or anger,” said Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons. “But I think it’s a lot better to turn out voters by giving them reasons for vote for you.” 

Talk of impeachment and similar gambits, Simmons added, amounted to “voter turnout on the cheap.”

For the moment, however, the killing of Brown is center stage.

Yet Hutchinson was unconvinced that the Brown killing, or even the broader complaints of a racial component to criticisms of Obama, would necessarily move the dial in the midterms.

“You think of the attacks on the president, the racial animus and these instances of police violence. … You would think on the surface, this might be a catalyst to energize the black vote. I don't see that,” he said.

In the black community, he added, “I think it is pretty much accepted that the president has been under attack for six years, and it has always to an extent been driven by race. People are used to it.”