Roseanne Barr and the Persistence of Prejudice

A reminder of the most illuminating and depressing reality of our time.


The tweet that caused an uproar that led to the cancellation of Roseanne Barr's ABC sitcom was a reminder of the most illuminating and depressing reality of our time: the stubborn centrality of race and racism in our national life.

It has been more than half a century since Congress passed the landmark Civil Rights Act, which Americans of that era assumed would set the nation on the road to confronting and eliminating the blight of discrimination and prejudice. But this year, a major network provided a weekly platform to an entertainer who once referred to Susan Rice, President Barack Obama's national security adviser, as "a man with big swinging ape balls."

ABC should have known what it was getting with Barr, whose show it dropped after she likened Valerie Jarrett, another black Obama aide, to an ape. But the network had been willing to overlook her nasty side in hopes of appealing to those forgotten souls who voted for Donald Trump.

Rice and Jarrett are Stanford alumni with enviable records of academic and professional achievement who have served their country in high positions of trust. Yet the only trait that appears to matter to Barr, a high school dropout, is that they are African-American, which to her means they are more like beasts than humans.

When the civil rights laws were enacted, it was common for whites to use the N-word. Even Lyndon Johnson, who pushed these measures through a Congress riddled with segregationists, was known to use it. Today, the epithet is heard far less among whites. But many who know better than to be so frank in their contempt for blacks find other ways to convey it.

Obama himself got this treatment so often that the website The Awl published "A Guide to Racist Obama Monkey Photoshops." Donald Trump's New York campaign co-chair told a reporter that Michelle Obama should be sent to "the outback of Zimbabwe" to live "in a cave with Maxie the gorilla."

The essence of these comments is that no matter how much intelligence, education, money, or renown an African-American has, he or she can never be the equal of a white person.

That prejudice has persisted despite being disowned by our laws and rejected by most whites. Last year, a National Opinion Research Center poll found that 26 percent of Republicans think blacks are less intelligent than whites—as do 18 percent of Democrats. To be an African-American is to be endlessly subjected to assumptions of inferiority.

Obama's election to the presidency appeared to mark a historic achievement, entrusting the most powerful job on the planet to a black man. But it also turned out to be a powerful goad to white fear and anger.

Trump's success would have been impossible without Obama, who was especially threatening to bigots not because he and his wife resembled the racist stereotype but because they refuted it so thoroughly.

Over and over, Trump has voiced and encouraged distrust of blacks, from demanding the death penalty for the teenagers wrongly convicted in a 1989 Central Park rape to questioning whether Obama was born in the United States and whether he was qualified for admission to his Ivy League alma maters. Trump's prejudice is not limited to blacks; Hispanics and Muslims are included.

In the 2016 election, race was a central factor. Whites in every age group preferred Trump to Hillary Clinton. Several studies indicate that racism was his ally.

"Racial resentment, anti-Muslim attitudes, and white identity were all much stronger predictors of support for Trump in the 2016 primaries than they were for prior Republican nominees," wrote Michael Tesler, a political scientist at the University of California, Irvine. "Racially resentful whites without a college degree were most likely to flee the Democratic Party during Obama's presidency."

Obama's election raised hopes that Americans could finally overcome the racial enmities and tensions of the past. "His talent was to project an idealized vision of a post-racial America," wrote Hoover Institution scholar Shelby Steele in 2008.

But despite his caution on the issue, Obama's presence in the White House roused deep anxieties among many white voters. Those anxieties have manifested themselves in overt white nationalism, anti-immigrant furies, the rise of Trump, and the popularity of Roseanne.

Many whites have long thought of our race problem as a national disease that will eventually be cured. But maybe it's a permanent affliction that we can only hope to manage.