In 1994, during my campaign for New York State Comptroller against Carl McCall, the race card was played persistently by members of the press and by my opponent. Since I had been active in civil rights causes, opened a headquarters in Harlem, was a sponsor of CORE events and had two men of color as my campaign chairmen, Reuben Diaz and Roy Innis, I was perplexed and disappointed. It became exceedingly ugly when Bob Herbert in a New York Times column called me a “racist,” a claim that was made without the slightest effort to speak to me directly or examine my record.
Even though I thought I was emotionally calloused the charge hurt. Most significantly, it had a chastening influence on my campaign. Even though I felt Mr. McCall made mistakes in our debates and had adopted positions that made him vulnerable to criticism, I was reluctant to challenge him. It was restraint borne of a false, but effective charge.
As I listened to comments by former President Jimmy Carter and other members of the Democratic party, I have had a strange sense of déjà vu. Some have argued that criticism of the president’s healthcare proposal is based on race, not the weakness in the proposed legislation. If you accept this argument, criticism is negated by its egregious and prejudicial character. Presumably President Obama wants to move the country ahead, but the contemporary Bull Connors have plotted to undermine his effort.
It is one thing for an irresponsible radio personality like Janeane Garafalo to make this outrageous claim, but when it is made by leaders in the party, the effect can be chilling. What it means is that bullying tactics can be used to stifle debate. Not only will race be employed as a trump card, it will be the catalyst for dictatorial control.
Should criticism hit home, arguments that cannot be rationally countered will be neutralized with the “nuclear race option.” Surely serious proponents of Obamacare must realize that well meaning critics can differ with the president on the essential features and details of his proposal. But it is easy to challenge reflexively using race as the sine qua non of argumentation.
For a president who said he was committed to a post racial administration, it would make sense for him to repudiate this stratagem. Yet he has been either conspicuously silent on this matter, or insulting to his critics. In a way that may indeed be inadvertent, he is promoting the use of the race card as a political device.
It is instructive that the more argumentation reverts to this base ploy, the less value it has. The racist charge has lost its effect because of the irresponsible manner in which it’s employed. I can recall Rep. Charlie Rangel maintaining that tax cuts were a function of racism. Every police action against a black assailant is invariably a racist act according to the Reverend Al Sharpton. And companies that do not support Reverend Jesse Jackson’s foundation are ipso facto racist organizations.
The public is increasingly desensitized to this extortion racket, but it is quite another matter when the president’s adherents rely on white guilt to buttress their position. This stance is divisive and dangerous. Stifling debate is not the sort of thing a president can encourage without deep-seated damage to the body politic.
I have been on the receiving end of this tactic and can testify it isn’t pretty. I won’t say it isn’t fair since that is obvious. But with some — and I fall into this category — it is effective. Once you start engaging in preemptive censorship, the other side of the debate has won even if his position is flimsy and unworthy.
It is time to put race to bed, to realize it should neither be an advantage not disadvantage. For race baiters, however, that is impossible; it is all they know and the one tactic that has yielded the result they want. But if President Obama is intent on bringing Americans together, he must denounce this ploy once and for all even if it means his detractors are free to challenge his proposals. After all, these challenges could make his arguments stronger than they are at the moment, and might even be good for the soul of the nation.