Beyond its myriad legal victories, one of the civil rights movement’s more intangible triumphs is its transformation of racism into America’s ultimate taboo. Being branded a racist in 2008 triggers opprobrium exceeded only by that reserved for child molesters, rapists, and murderers. Thus it is vital that politicians and pundits not throw racism charges around like horseshoes.
Last week, Senator Barack Obama (D – Illinois) pitched three such horseshoes at Senator John McCain (R – Arizona). McCain did exactly what he needed to do: He hurled them right back at Obama. As Rick Davis, McCain’s campaign manager, put it: “Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck. It’s divisive, negative, shameful and wrong.”
Until this fracas, Obama generated little controversy when he reminded people (as he did in Berlin on July 24) that “I don’t look like the Americans who’ve previously spoken in this great city.” While critics might call this an appeal to racial identity, or perhaps a manipulation of white guilt, the more generous interpretation is that Obama’s words honor a country in which — agree with him or not — a member of a minority group is about to receive the presidential nomination of one of our two major political parties. In that sense, when United States Senator Barack Obama gives his acceptance speech in Denver on August 28, we all shall overcome.
But Obama did something completely different when he frivolously accused his opponents of racism.
“Nobody thinks that Bush and McCain have a real answer to the challenges we face. So what they’re going to try to do is make you scared of me,” Obama told Missouri voters on July 30. “You know, ‘He’s not patriotic enough; he’s got a funny name.’ You know, ‘He doesn’t look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills.’”
(That’s right: Those presidents “other” than President Obama.)
Maybe Obama meant to say that he cuts his hair shorter than George Washington did, or that his smile is bigger than Abraham Lincoln’s. A campaign spokesman tried to whitewash Obama’s remarks by saying, “What Barack Obama was talking about was that he didn’t get here after spending decades in Washington.” Well, neither did George Washington, who was inaugurated in America’s then-capitol, New York City. More plausibly, Obama made the obvious point that those presidents were white, and he is not.
But when he stated in Springfield last Wednesday that Republicans planned to “make you scared of me” — and repeated that message in Rolla and Union, Missouri that day — Obama played the race card, and in a very ugly way.
And this was not the first time. Just one day before gratuitously hurling his groundless charges against McCain in the Show Me State, Obama said: “It’s a leap, electing a 46-year-old black guy named Barack Obama.” As Rich Lowry richly documented in a recent syndicated column, after Obama won North Carolina’s May 6 primary, he predicted in Raleigh that McCain and “his side” would “play on our fears and exploit our differences.” Again, on June 20, Obama claimed at a Jacksonville, Florida fundraiser that the GOP planned to target him by saying: “He’s young and inexperienced, and he’s got a funny name. And did I mention he’s black?”
Forty years ago, this entire flap would not have happened. Illinois would not be represented in the Senate by a black man. But beyond that, calling a political opponent a racist was less inflammatory, since prejudice was much more widespread.
Thankfully, America has grown and improved. Now that this contention is as serious as a subpoena, people like Obama should not pitch such charges against their political rivals unless they can prove them. Americans should not lightly accuse each other of exploiting race any more than we baselessly should call each other pedophiles.
This rule should apply to candidates like Obama, as well as pundits like Bill Press who somehow located a racial bogeyman in McCain’s much-discussed ad that dismisses Obama as a global celebrity who is as prepared for the presidency as are national disgraces Paris Hilton and Britney Spears.
This commercial is “childish,” Press wrote in the July 31 Huffington Post. “This ad is also deliberately and deceptively racist.” Press explains: “In juxtaposing Barack Obama with Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, the McCain campaign is simply trying to plant the old racist seed of black man hitting on young white woman. Not directly, but subliminally and disgracefully.”
There is nothing in McCain’s ad that even tangentially links Obama, Hilton, and Spears as anything other than glamorous stars whose glitter blinds the masses to their vacuity. One need not be airborne on strong hallucinogens to think McCain tried to tie Obama, Hilton, and Spears sexually, but it sure helps.
No one has identified anything racist that McCain or his aides have said or done in this White House bid, or anywhere else in McCain’s lengthy record.
In fact, McCain — not Obama — was the victim of a racially charged whisper campaign in 2000 in which he supposedly fathered a black love child. Actually, the McCains adopted a little girl who Cindy McCain, the candidate’s wife, found in poor health in Mother Teresa’s orphanage in Bangladesh. They named her Bridget.
“She’s a wonderful child, a complete part of our family, and we love her,” McCain told DadMag.com.
Speaking specifically about the political abuse of Bridget’s race, McCain added:
As you know she’s Bengali, and very dark skinned. A lot of phone calls were made by people who said we should be very ashamed about her, about the color of her skin. Thousands and thousands of calls from people to voters saying, “You know, the McCains have a black baby.” I believe that there is a special place in Hell for people like those.
For his part, McCain strongly has discouraged his allies from pushing racial buttons. McCain stood before TV cameras and condemned radio host Bill Cunningham who, minutes earlier, referred twice to “Barack Hussein Obama” while introducing McCain at a February 26 rally in Cincinnati.
“I take responsibility and I repudiate what he said,” McCain told journalists immediately after his appearance.
Last spring, North Carolina’s Republican Party broadcast a tough-but-fair commercial tying the Illinois senator to Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s fiery, former minister. McCain demanded that they yank it off the air.
“We asked them not to run it. I’m sending them an e-mail as we speak, asking them to take it down,” McCain told journalists aboard The Straight Talk Express on April 23. “I don’t know why they do it, and obviously I don’t control them. But I’m making it very clear, as I have a couple of times in the past, that there’s no place for that kind of campaigning — and the American people don’t want it, period.”
McCain has been around long enough to know that the Republican margin of error on race is about a millimeter wide. If Social Security is “the third rail of politics” (touch it, and you will die), race for Republicans is the scalpel you use to slit your own throat. Even those who may think McCain has a heart of coal should concede that he is savvy enough not to mention Obama’s skin color, lest his campaign subsequently bleed to death before a disgusted American public.
As Bruce Bartlett details in his new book, Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party’s Buried Past, "a long-time, ethnic double standard dominates American politics. The media routinely magnify and decry the tiniest Republican racial missteps while minimizing and dismissing overt Democratic racism." Thus, former Senator Trent Lott (R – Mississippi) was dislodged as Senate Majority Leader for praising his retiring colleague, Senator Strom Thurmond (R – South Carolina), because of Thurmond’s segregationist past. Conversely, Bill and Hillary Clinton repeatedly dealt the race card against Obama by calling his campaign a “fairy tale” and belittling Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s accomplishments without suffering the press conflagration that would have engulfed any Republican who dared to say such things.
While it is hard to prove a negative, staff writer Mike Glover of the reliably objective Associated Press wrote on July 31: “McCain has not raised Obama’s race as an issue in the campaign, though he has said that Obama lacks experience.”
But McCain’s clean bill of health from the AP is not enough to satisfy many on the Left who see bigots lurking about, like goblins, at Republican campaign offices from coast to coast.
Take Keith Boykin, host of "My Two Cents" on Black Entertainment Television. He and I debated this issue on CNBC’s "Kudlow & Co." last Thursday evening.
“There is no race card here, except for the one the McCain campaign is using,” Boykin insisted. When I asked him repeatedly on air to cite even one example of McCain or his team exploiting Obama’s race or ethnicity, Boykin only offered amorphous comments about McCain and “the Republican Party attack machine” running “the most negative campaign I have seen in a long time.”
Well, yes, I replied. Negative — but about things like Obama’s plans to race toward higher taxes while dragging his feet on energy production. There’s nothing racial there.
“In 2008, people don’t play the race card the way they did in 1968,” Boykin countered. “It’s not about overt attacks. It’s about secret words.”
Breaking news: McCain speaks Caucasian, a clandestine language that only white people understand. No wonder neither Keith Boykin nor I can identify any of John McCain’s allegedly racist remarks about Barack Obama.