Racism Or “Downward Social Comparison”?

So, is the vitriolic backlash against the president largely fueled by race, as former President Jimmy Carter contends? “An overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man” is how Carter phrased it.


The Obama Administration, understandably, disagrees.  No one, of course, would recommend that the president appear to be calling out his dissenters, however rude and crude, as anachronistic racists. You can’t win that one – even in “post-racial” America.


All you do is further splinter all the issues that need addressing – not scapegoating. It also feeds the disingenuous take of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich who recently noted that “It’s very destructive for America to suggest that we can’t criticize a president without it being a racial act.” Nobody looks good in thin skin.


Some have zeroed in on Carter’s “overwhelming portion” reference as a classic example of overwhelming inexactitude. America has been purged of neither racists nor polemicists. A fusillade of ad hominem criticism is still not proof positive that racists are “largely” behind it.


And some have theorized that Rep. Joe Wilson, R-ULie, really represents a simmering, pro-segregation, anti-Union sentiment still endemic in the land of Dixie.


But here’s what I think is really the visceral issue. Psychologists call it the “downward social comparison.” The rest of us would recognize it as the “everyone needs some one to look down on” syndrome.


We saw hints of it during certain presidential primaries last year. Elements of the electorate with less-than-upwardly-mobile lots in life who resort to an age-old form of rationalization. Wherever you are in the society’s pecking order, goes the thinking, somebody’s always below you. Often, it’s more racial than socio-economic.


For those clinging to such societal consolation prizes, seeing that the president of the United States is a black guy with a Muslim name can only grate. Damn it, life might not be fair, but it’s not supposed to be a larger-than-life insult! In combination with gut issues such as health care and the right to bear arms, an African-American president has created the perfect backlash storm.  


So, race is, indeed, part of it. But an “overwhelming portion”? Probably not. Just sizable enough to be alarming. And potent enough to remind us how naïve we were to think that “post-racial” America actually beckoned in our lifetime.

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