United We Stand? Critics of Obama's Racial Challenges Are Way off Base

"(Obama) is truly trying to tear our country apart," charges Fox News commentator Todd Stames in a Twitter attack in response to our president's unscripted 17-minute response to the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman verdict. He is not alone.

And yet nothing could be further from the truth. First of all, our country is already ripped asunder -- witness the deep chasms dramatically dividing us precisely along party lines on fundamental issues like immigration, availability of medical care, women's rights, gun control, voter's rights, global warming, same sex marriage, racial profiling by police, financial aid to the poor, racial equality, taxation et al, ad infinitum. I read recently that more Republicans (68 percent) believe demonic possession is real than climate change (48 percent). (Meanwhile 88 percent of Democrats "believe there is solid evidence of global warming" -- a metaphor for the opposite sides of the canyon we view each other from, and the values our two parties embrace.

And while Republican House members may or may not be possessed by demonic powers, they are possessed of enough vitriolic stubbornness, for example, to continue their attempts to exorcise virtually every attempt Obama has made to improve our quality of life (note they just voted again, for the 40th time(!), to dismantle the Affordable Care Act -- 40 times -- knowing it will never get Senate approval and would ultimately face a presidential veto anyway), demonstrating nothing less than a full head spin and projectile vomiting -- demonic actions most of them apparently believe possible.

Despite these political differences in fundamental values, or maybe because of them, President Obama is justifiably raising a volatile issue that simmers just below the boiling point of the American consciousness: racism and racial bias. Yes, the overt issues have been addressed over the years by Congress and the Supreme Court: the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, and 1991; the 24th amendment, abolishing discriminatory poll taxes that existed in primarily southern states; public school de-segregation; Affirmative Action; striking down the Voting Rights Act and the ban on interracial marriage, et al -- although one could argue none of this would have taken place without... Rosa Parks; freedom marches; race riots; boycotts and sit-ins; the eloquence of Martin Luther King and the frustrated venom of Malcolm X, Stokely Charmichael, and Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and the Black Panthers; the courage of James Meredith and "The Little Rock Nine;" the sacrifices of Emmett Till and Cheney, Goodman and Schwerner et al, et al.

There exists an undercurrent of racial bias and discrimination in our country, difficult to quantify and even harder to address without getting the kinds of out of whack reactions Obama's comments have provoked. In a book just published (The American Non-Dilemma: Racial Inequality Without Racism, April 2013, Russell Sage Foundation), the author, sociologist Nancy Ditomaso "convincingly argues that America's enduing racial divide is sustained more by whites' preferential treatment of members of their own social networks than by overt racial discrimination. So, do all of us have some kind of hidden racial bias? A few years ago Dateline NBC brought together a group of white and black volunteers to address that very question. They replicated an earlier test created by Mahzarin Banaji, Harvard, and Anthony Greenwald, University of Washington. Respondents viewed a series of photos of whites and blacks, along with a random set of words that were either "good" or "bad," and asked to link them to either the white or black portrait. What their studies show is that "something like 79 or 80 percent of white Americans who take the test show a preference for white (people) over black," (as indicated by the positive word links). It also showed that 42 percent of Blacks showed a preference for whites, while only 17 percent of whites showed a preference for Blacks. Says Greenwald, "We find that frequently some people are disturbed by their results" -- because they describe themselves as without racial bias. "We all might be prejudiced in ways we're not aware," said Banaji.

Dateline NBC concluded by saying, "This test suggests that when it comes to the potent question of race, our subconscious is making decisions everyday. They're decisions that in real time in real life have real consequences."

Precisely the point Obama is making... eloquent ... raising awareness and sensitivities... personalizing the issues... challenging us to think... to learn -- and he's getting roasted by the right for it. The subtle forms of discrimination that Obama has described are just as bad, if not worse, than overt discrimination -- and difficult if not impossible to mitigate through laws and legislation. Subtle, perhaps unconscious reflexes like locking car doors when a black person passes by; tightening your grip on your purse when a black person gets in an elevator with you; being followed in a store for no reason other than you're a black person.

No, these issues require a deep and personal examination of our own thoughts and beliefs, and how we reflect them, and we may not even be aware we're guilty of the kinds of subtle discrimination Obama is describing.

The response from the right? He's a racist. Race-baiter. Reprimander in Chief. Conservative blogger Dan Riehl declared the president "the first Racist in Chief." Stoked the flames of racial tensions? Dividing the country? People are mad as hell?

Good! It is about time, and it could only be provoked on this scale by our first black president. (It is noteworthy that these vitriolic responses have not yet included the kinds of violence we experienced throughout the '60s -- a definite sign of improved, informed sensibilities). Now maybe people will honestly think about and then genuinely address the corrosive undercurrent of racism that continues to exist in America. We are all part of it, good, bad and especially the ugly. Until then? United we stand? Divided, we fall! And we are stumbling.