The president who won’t call racism racism

The Justice Department's challenge to Arizona's immigration law illustrates Obama's reluctance to confront race

Topics: Immigration, Barack Obama, War Room,

The president who won't call racism racismPresident Barack Obama, gestures during his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin, Tuesday, July 6, 2010, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)(Credit: AP)

When Rep. Steve King said a few weeks ago that Obama “favors the black person,” public attention paused briefly before quickly moving on. There is evidence, though, that the Obama administration might not be as quick as the general public to disregard claims of race-favoritism. In fact, the Obama Justice Department’s challenge to the Arizona immigration law filed on Tuesday suggests that sensitivity to claims like those of King may exert a strong influence on administration policy.

The government’s complaint in the Arizona case, which challenges the law commonly referred to as SB 1070, asserts repeatedly that the law frustrates the federal government’s ability to implement national immigration policy. (In legal parlance, the argument is that federal immigration law “preempts” state statutory enactments.) Entirely absent from the government’s argument, though, is any claim that the law encourages officers to racially profile Hispanic residents and violate their Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable searches — the aspects of the law that many people find the most objectionable.

That’s surprising, because a preemption argument is unlikely to fell the most controversial provision of the law: the requirement that officers investigate the immigration status of any person they reasonably suspect is in the country illegally. The government’s lawsuit argues that this mandate impermissibly burdens the federal bureaucracy, but it’s hardly intuitive that verifying immigration status with federal officials would thwart the goals or policies of the feds. (To the contrary, federal law specifically authorizes state officers to verify immigration status with the federal government.) In contrast, the notion that that the law foists raced-based decisions on law enforcement officers offers both a more compelling storyline and firmer legal ground.

The government’s focus on preemption makes even less sense when you consider the (largely accurate) perception that the government has abdicated its responsibility to legislate in the area of immigration. Does anyone look at the patchwork of federal immigration law, sporadically enforced, and think that it represents the well-considered judgment of Congress and the president, to which all fifty states must defer? Probably not, which is likely part of the reason that the Ninth Circuit in 2008 rejected a preemption challenge to another Arizona immigration law. It’s also probably part of the reason that the ACLU, in its own challenge of SB 1070, made many arguments that the law infringes a variety of constitutional rights, all of which are missing from the Department of Justice suit. (The ACLU’s press release heralding its suit labeled SB 1070 “Arizona’s racial profiling law.”)

This might be enough to make you suspect that the Justice Department’s preemption-only strategy is not the result of pure legal analysis. Instead, it seems that the Obama administration is walking a fine political line — attempting to please the left by challenging a much-despised law while avoiding the firestorm that would result if the challenge were grounded in race. By omitting from the suit any suggestion that the Arizona law unfairly targets Hispanics or other minorities, Obama and the Justice Department withhold from Steve King and his ilk ammunition for the claim that the administration holds special solicitude for minorities. (Or, in Glenn Beck’s phrasing, that Obama has a “deep-seated hatred for white people.”)

When you consider the host of race-tinged episodes faced by Obama and his team, from the nearly catastrophic (Jeremiah Wright) to the comically mundane (the Skip Gates beer summit) to the largely under-the-radar (the Black-Panthers-at-the polling-station case), the idea that racial politics has influenced the Justice Department’s legal strategy seems credible. After seeing his presidential ambitions nearly incinerated in the flames of race after the Wright tapes surfaced, Obama seems reluctant to place his hand back in the fire. An accusation that SB 1070, favored by a large majority of white Arizonans, amounts to state-sanctioned racism would throw Obama directly into racial debates of the type he has assiduously sought to avoid.

Conventional wisdom holds that this is a smart political strategy — that when a president claims racial unfairness, it better be unfairness to whites. (See Ronald Reagan and “welfare queens,” Bill Clinton and Sister Souljah.) But it’s difficult to see how it makes good policy. It may be beneficial to Obama, politically, to have the Congressional Black Caucus criticize his inattention to the plight of unemployed African-Americans, but it’s hardly good news for anyone else.

The same holds true for the Justice Department’s decision to scrub its challenge to SB 1070 of any racial references. The government may have avoided a politically costly public discussion on race, but it also neglected to throw the weight of the presidency behind the claim that the Arizona law sanctions racism. The missed opportunity is especially surprising coming from the office of Attorney General Eric Holder, who famously declared that America was a “nation of cowards” when it comes to matters of race. He was, predictably, excoriated by conservatives for the proclamation, which may in part explain his reluctance to raise racial issues in the government’s papers. That might be the politically expedient course, but it falls far short of the standard for civic bravery that he set for himself and for us.

James Doty is a writer and lawyer in New York City.

James Doty is a writer and lawyer living in New York.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>