Sen. Tom Coburn readily acknowledges that he considers Barack Obama to be a friend and that he has great respect for the president. Last week, Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, was asked by a reporter in Tulsa whether the president was seeking to destroy the country with his policies. Here was the senator’s answer:
“No, I don’t. He’s a very bright man,” Coburn said, sounding very much like a friend.
Then, Coburn starts to veer. “His intent isn’t to destroy. It’s to create dependency because it worked so well for him.”
The friend gets more chilling. “As an African-American male, coming through the progress of everything he experienced, he got tremendous benefit through a lot of these programs,” Coburn continued, sounding a little less friend-like. “So he believes in them. I just don’t believe they work overall, and in the long run, they don’t help our country. But he doesn’t know that because his life experience is something different.”
With friends like Coburn, who needs foes?
There is simply so much that’s troubling here. First of all, what are these tremendous benefits that go along with being an African-American male? This is the demographic suffering most from joblessness. Black men are over-represented in the criminal justice system and under-represented on college campuses, with an even smaller percentage who graduate from college. They are most likely to be stopped by police and least likely to get a bank loan.
Poor African-Americans are much more likely to live in concentrated poverty than their white counterparts, which means that many of those who have had great success in business, politics and other fields have traveled a more-not less-difficult road to the kind of success represented by the Obamas.
More than anything, it is another sign of how race simply permeates everything having to do with the 44th president of the United States, from the mundane to the significant. It tinges the discussion of how much vacation time the president takes to his selection of Supreme Court justices and everything in between.
It’s a reflection of what former President Jimmy Carter said when he stated in the early days of the Obama administration that he believes race, and even racism, would be an issue for Obama in trying to lead the country.
Coburn suggests, as do many of his fellow Republican officials, that the president’s race somehow allowed him to reap “tremendous benefit” through programs that not only made him dependent, but also made him crave policies of dependency for others. He speaks as though any Black man would prefer an unemployment check to a job. For folks on the right, like Coburn, disagreement with the president on issues of policy, like lifting the nation’s debt ceiling or tax policy, are always presented through the prism of race. Moreover, it is infused with even more subtlety by the very nature of the absurd question by the reporter.
Certainly, there were significant disagreements that progressive Americans had with the presidency of George W. Bush, from his handling of the economy to the American military presence in Iraq. However, no reporter asked any senator or other official whether it was Bush’s aim to “destroy” America. And who would have described Bush’s view on the policy matters of the day as based on his upbringing “as a white male”? Where was the national controversy and demands to see the birth certificate of the born-in-Panama Republican presidential candidate John McCain?
The answer is steeped in American’s not-quite reconstructed odyssey with race. The sad thing is that Coburn’s voice-as well intentioned as it purports to be-represents a position that is rampant in the United States, particularly among the Republican right. Race is the sometimes silent, sometimes screeching undercurrent in this presidency. And it is a reflection of how far our country needs yet to travel.