May 22, 2012
The Weight of Race in the Race
By David K. Shipler
It will be instructive during this election campaign to watch certain conservative whites try to activate racist attitudes against President Obama without seeming to do so. This will be a challenge, in part because wild exaggeration will be necessary to make Obama into a caricature resembling the ugliest stereotypes of blacks.
Nothing about him fits the malicious images traditionally imposed on African-Americans by American society. He is not stupid, lazy, violent, dirty, criminal, corrupt, or immoral. He is a loving and responsible family man. He does not abuse power or behave arrogantly when he gets it. He does not see through a racial lens, does not remind whites of their guilt, and does not indulge in anti-white polemics. (Being biracial, of course, he is as white as he is black.)
Most relevant to conservatives’ latest scheme—the abortive plan to smear him with the rants of his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright—Obama is not angry. He could never have been elected if he were, for black rage is deeply frightening to many American whites, and it has been for more than 200 years.
The anxieties reach back to Thomas Jefferson, that complex man who owned slaves and denounced slavery, and predicted racial war, not racial coexistence, growing out of the justifiable grievances that blacks had endured. He proposed that the United States establish a colony for blacks on the coast of Africa, provide patronage until they became self-sufficient, and replace them with voluntary white laborers from abroad.
“Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the State?” he asks in Notes on the State of Virginia. He then gives his ominous answer: “Deep-rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions, which will probably never end but in the extermination of one or the other race.”
Even Jefferson could be wrong, fortunately. But he put his finger on a fear that outlived him. When Malcolm X emerged as a militant counterpoint to Martin Luther King, Jr., waves of apprehension coursed through the country. The Black Panthers’ angry rhetoric also made many whites feel threatened. When the 1963 March on Washington was planned, the FBI predicted violence (I have never been in a mass gathering so softened by gentle friendliness among strangers). When the 1995 Million Man March drew hundreds of thousands of African-American men to Washington, downtown employers expected disorder and closed their offices for the day (again, I saw a march that was peaceful and uplifting).
So it was logical that the anti-white, anti-patriotic fulminations of Reverend Wright, who performed the Obamas’ wedding ceremony, and whose line “the audacity of hope” became the title of Obama’s best-selling book, should have been circulated during the 2008 campaign in an effort to scare off white voters. In the most vivid clip, Wright thundered: “The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law, and then wants us to sing God bless America? No, no, no. Not God Bless America. God damn America! That’s in the Bible, for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating her citizens as less than human.”
John McCain refused to allow ads exploiting this guilt by association, which earned him praise from decent folks and still gets him criticism from the take-no-prisoners crowd among Republicans. A similar divide among conservatives was provoked when The New York Times last week exposed a Super-Pac plan for an advertising campaign dredging up Wright again. Mitt Romney immediately repudiated the idea, Karl Rove called it stupid, and the would-be financier—Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts—backed off.
Ethics didn’t seem to be a reason, though. Republican tacticians thought it wouldn’t work and might even backfire. First, the Wright issue had already been aired thoroughly in 2008, when Obama issued an eloquent denunciation of his former pastor. Second, Americans have come to know Obama as so emotionally cool—too cool for some of his ardent liberal supporters—that the angry Wright rhetoric wouldn’t stick. People seem to like Obama even as they dislike his record.
The only racial overtone with resonance so far is the fanciful notion that Obama is not really part of America, not quite one of “us.” Blacks have long been regarded, often subconsciously, as “others” whose imagined differences from whites put them somewhere at the margins of society and culture. Many whites feel an uncomfortable distance from blacks.
So, conservatives emphasize Obama’s supposed otherness. Obama’s middle name—Hussein—is featured in an illustration for the abortive Ricketts plan and is often repeated on the air by Rush Limbaugh. In the rightwing calumny, Obama somehow manages to be both a Muslim and a disciple of a fire-breathing Christian pastor—a neat trick. His centrism becomes radical, his cautious economic posture becomes socialist. These labels are designed to set him apart from the mainstream, as is the assertion that he was not born in America, or, as Republican Congressman Mike Coffman of Colorado said earlier this month: “I don’t know whether Barack Obama was born in the United States of America. I don’t know that. But I do know this, that in his heart, he’s not an American. He’s just not an American.” None of this would reverberate if he were not black.
How much race will work this time around is a question, though. The people whom Republicans have to persuade are not the know-nothing birthers but hail from the independent constituencies that voted for Obama last time. The economy will determine the outcome, political gurus seem to agree.
Still, it will be worth watching for encrypted racial messages to overlay the economic theme. It would not be surprising to see suggestions that Obama means well but just isn’t up to the job, like a man promoted too far too fast by some form of misguided affirmative action. If it’s done cleverly, the suspicion of racial inferiority will be merged with his actual performance, impossible to disentangle. For voters who conclude that they gave him a chance and he just couldn’t hack it, what weight will latent racial prejudice carry? That will be hard to measure.