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JULY 31, 2018
Meyerson on TAP
In a characteristically well-argued essay that ran yesterday on Vox, Prospect alum (and, OK, also Vox’s founding editor) Ezra Klein demonstrated how the nation’s growing racial diversity, and the declining share of its white population, has been a major factor fueling the rise of white nationalism, racism, and backlash. He noted that Barack Obama’s election as president, far from signaling the triumph of a post-racial America, actually had the effect of spurring a more alarmed, alarmist, and virulent racism among sectors of the white population.
I’ve long argued that it was Obama’s misfortune to come to power at a time when the nation’s racial composition was in the flux that it was in. His election would have driven white racists crazy at any time, of course, but if we look at the politics of American cities, we can discern particular periods when it’s easier for minorities to govern. The first African Americans elected mayors of major cities came to power under two specific sets of circumstances. One group—Richard Hatcher in Gary, Indiana, and Carl Stokes in Cleveland, who were elected in 1967 and 1968, respectively—won their office in cities where, for the first time, a clear majority of the electorate was black. The second group—personified by Tom Bradley, who was elected mayor of Los Angeles in 1973—came to power in cities where blacks were a relatively small share of the population and clearly not destined to displace what was then a white majority. In 1973, LA was roughly 17 percent black, and it was Bradley’s ability to forge a coalition across racial lines, in which blacks and Jews were the largest constituencies, that led to his victory (and his four subsequent re-elections).
In other words, blacks broke through electorally when they had the numbers to constitute a majority unto themselves, or when they were a vibrant but small share of the overall population and thus didn’t threaten to displace the existing, white, majority. (Of course, if LA’s whites, and more particularly LA’s Jews, hadn’t been disproportionately liberal, Bradley would never have been elected.)
Obama came to power in a different set of circumstances—at a time when many whites’ fears of the erosion of white hegemony, of what they saw as the looming transformation of a normatively white, and just plain white, America into a (normatively and just plain) multiracial America were already rising. Like Bradley, of course, Obama could not have been elected and re-elected had there not been a major share of the white population that didn’t hold such views. But among many of the white Americans who did, his election was just one more sign that the nation was headed where they didn’t want it to go, and for many of them, their racist views became only more virulent and vicious.
The thought recently occurred to me that in this, Obama may have been following in the footsteps of Léon Blum—or more accurately, in moving from Obama to Trump, America may be following in the footsteps of France when it moved from Blum to Marshal Pétain. Following elections in 1936, in which all the French parties of the left and center-left, from the Communists to the Socialists to the Republicans, joined forces in the face of rising fascism to elect France’s first left-wing government, Socialist Léon Blum became the nation’s prime minister. During the year his coalition governed, Blum put through the landmark legislation establishing France’s welfare state, which exists to this day.
But Blum wasn’t merely France’s first socialist prime minister; he was also its first Jewish prime minister, in a nation where anti-Semitism was the very linchpin of the sizable far-right, in a nation that had almost split in two 30 years earlier over the Dreyfus affair, which had been fueled by the savage anti-Semitism of both the right and the military. That Blum, a Jew, could become prime minister was almost too much for the French right to bear (indeed, Blum was dragged out of a car and beaten by anti-Semites a few weeks before his election). The newly reinforced anti-Semitism festered until the Germans took France’s surrender in 1940, and then burst forth in the Vichy regime that the Nazis authorized. Headed by World War I hero Petain, Vichy willingly collaborated with the Nazis in sending French Jews to the death camps. Blum had refused to flee France when it fell; he was tried by Vichy on charges of treason, which he so convincingly refuted that the trial was abruptly stopped before reaching completion—though Vichy sent Blum to a German concentration camp anyway. The Nazis ordered his execution just days before they surrendered to the Allies; fortunately, local officials refused to carry it out.
So did Obama’s presidency, in fueling an intensified white racism, follow in the footsteps of Blum’s year in power, which raised the French right’s anti-Semitism to a boil? Seems that way. ~ HAROLD

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