Juan Williams: Racial politics in plain sight

Juan Williams: Racial politics in plain sight
© Getty Images

America’s racial tensions, hot after the painful non-indictments in Ferguson and New York, bubbled up on Capitol Hill last week. The occasion was a House Judiciary hearing on President Obama’s executive authority to limit deportations of illegal immigrants.

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) asked an advocate for the policy why “the response to this has been so different under this president” when several other presidents have made similar use of their prosecutorial discretion to shift enforcement of immigration law.

“He is the first African-American president,” said Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. Matter of fact, she added: “Historically every single president — Republican and Democrat since Eisenhower — has used their prosecutorial discretion.”

Rep. Trey GowdyTrey GowdyCummings demands documents about Conway's flights with Price Dems call for 'emergency' hearing on Trump's hurricane response Democrats unveil bills to ban Cabinet members’ private jet travel MORE (R- S.C.) took offense. “I would just caution you to be careful when you try to [impugn] motives to people,” he told Hincapie. Gowdy argued that when the current president was a senator he “had a different perspective on executive overreach than President Obama and nobody runs to race as an explanation for that.”

Gowdy’s desire to take racism off the political table requires heavy lifting six years into the Obama presidency. Conservatives, including Gowdy, try to make the case that their unrelenting criticism, their pursuit of “scandals” that turn out to be non-existent and their systematic obstruction of Obama’s policies, all amount to just politics. It has nothing to do with race, they say, except in the minds of liberals who want to play the race card.

But Cohen’s question to Hincapie came from a deep well of liberal suspicion. At base, many progressives believe that conservatives resent a black man’s presence in the White House and resent, too, the rise of minority voting power that allowed him to win the presidency twice.

They point to comments made by Republicans such as Rep. Mo BrooksMorris (Mo) Jackson BrooksWhatever you think the Alabama special election means, you’re probably wrong GOP lawmaker pushes to end sports leagues' tax-exempt status Rep. Mo Brooks: We should end federal government support to NFL MORE (R-Ala.) who earlier this year said a “war on whites” is part of a “strategy that Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaAll five living former presidents to attend hurricane relief concert Overnight Health Care: Schumer calls for tying ObamaCare fix to children's health insurance | Puerto Rico's water woes worsen | Dems plead for nursing home residents' right to sue Interior moves to delay Obama’s methane leak rule MORE implemented … he divides us all on race, on sex, greed, envy, class warfare, all those kinds of things.”

My Fox News colleague Sean Hannity argued to me last week that President Obama’s decisions to speak up about racial incidents from Ferguson to the Trayvon Martin case to the 2009 dispute between police and a black professor in Cambridge, Mass., have enflamed white racial anger.

Ben Carson, a black Republican who could run for president, said last week: “I actually believe that [race relations] were better before this president was elected. … Things have gotten worse because of his unusual emphasis on race.”

This debate extends into the politics of 2016. Analysis of the Democrats’ big loss in the 2014 midterms prominently features the argument that Democrats cannot continue to lose ground with white voters and expect to do well in future elections.

Sixty percent of white voters in the midterms gave their support to the GOP. In 2012, Obama lost 59 percent of white votes.

After Obama’s 2012 win, the leading conservative talk show host, Rush Limbaugh, said: “I went to bed last night thinking we’re outnumbered.” He portrayed Mitt Romney, the GOP nominee, as campaigning with a “vision of traditional America,” versus Obama’s appeal to voters “who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims…who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”

More recently, Limbaugh implied the first black president was allowing people with Ebola into the country because of the legacy of slavery.

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) said after the midterms that Republicans have become an overwhelmingly white party and “believe that slavery isn’t over and that they won the Civil War.”

That prompted South Carolina Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottOvernight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open Senators grill ex-Equifax CEO over stock sales Wells Fargo chief defends bank's progress in tense Senate hearing MORE, a black Republican, to say Rangel was being “ridiculous.” Scott insisted that Democrats should avoid appeals to “the lowest common denominator of fear and race-bating.”

But Scott’s approach is just another version of Gowdy’s call for turning a blind eye to racial issues and the presence of a black president.

It also requires lips to be zipped about the GOP’s advocacy of new voter identification programs that disproportionately keep blacks and Latinos from voting. It turns a blind eye, too, to gerrymandered congressional districts, constructed by Republican state legislatures, to push minorities out of GOP districts.

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulHouse bill set to reignite debate on warrantless surveillance Authorizing military force is necessary, but insufficient GOP feuds with outside group over analysis of tax framework MORE (R-Ky.) is causing discomfort in his party by owning up to the GOP’s use of racial wedge issues and voter suppression. He cites this history as the reason so many minorities have a problem with the GOP brand. Colin Powell, one of the most prominent black Republicans, admits there is a “dark vein of intolerance in some parts of the party.”

Chris Rock said Obama has “figured out, and maybe a little late, that there’s some people he’s never going to get.”

Rock was alluding to white conservatives and the growing racial divide now coloring America’s national politics. The GOP is now the home of white resentment over demographic, political and economic shifts in the country.

That is not President Obama’s fault.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.