Monday, October 20, 2008

Race Rears its Head

The Republican party is not a racist party. But American conservatism is the ideological home of racism, and most racists are conservatives, even if most conservatives, as with most members of the GOP, are not racists. And today the vast majority of American conservatives are Republicans. Just as the Democratic party has a racist history to bear (and to a far greater extent and depth than the Republicans could ever dream of at that), so too does today's Republican party, built at least in part on a Southern base of whites disaffected by the national Democratic party's attention to civil rights in the postwar era. This is a complex issue, of course, immune to reductionism, but the broad contours as I have laid them out hold.

Race has come to the fore in the 2008 campaign in the way that most of us could have expected. The racial attacks have not been frontal, and their racial nature has at least been couched in deniable manifestations. But racial, and oftentimes racist, they have been. John McCain is not a racist, but he has aligned with racists because, as McCain has shown, winning now trumps honor and it certainly trumps whatever true beliefs he once held.

Thus Charles Krauthammer's fatuous article accusing Obama of playing the race card (and that's what he does even though all of his examples are of others, many unaffiliated with Obama, alleging racializing the campaign) is particularly rich, but not especially surprising. Conservatives have managed to create a moral relativism whereby accusing someone of racism is a breach of decorum every bit as bad as racism itself and is thus itself subject to condemnation. This is actually a pretty clever gambit intended to enable certain kinds of words and behavior while at the same time chilling criticism. It is also demogaguery of the rankest sort.

I cannot help but wonder what Krauthammer thinks about GOP fundraisers joking about Obama's assassination or Republican officials in California distributing what I am certain they believed to be hilarious postcards depicting Obama on a food stamp voucher surrounded by foodstuffs such as fried chicken, watermelon, ribs, and Kool Aid. But of course this has nothing at all to do with racial stereotypes! How stupid do they think we are?

But the height of hypocrisy on the issue of racism comes in the wake of Colin Powell's epochal endorsement of Obama, which naturally led to Rush Limbaugh accusing Powell of racism. This yet again reveals an amazing amount of relativism that is all too common in the playbook of some conservatives. They are quite willing to claim moral equivalency between white racism, built on a historical foundation of white supremacy, and alleged assertions of "black racism," which is nowhere to be found in Powell's endorsement, even if that does not prevent the Limbaughs of this world from spinning their vitriol.

Of course there is another way to think of these matters. My tendency is to become enraged. But at The Atlantic, Matthew Quirk welcomes GOP race-baiting. It reveals the other side for what it is, after all, and when "That One" wins, it will be fun to see the response.

in the midst of all of this comes John McWhorter's piece in The New Republic in which he discourages readers from blaming racism if Obama loses. Matthew Yglesias quite effectively pillories McWhorter's peculiar preemptive strike on an issue that surely will account for some tiny slice of the opposition to Obama, whether it proves decisive or not.

Ironically enough, some of the same conservatives tapdancing around the race issue will be the first to use an Obama victory to claim that we are past race and racism. Having lived, traveled and worked in South Africa during the Mandela and Mbeki years I can assure you that a comparable assertion about racism being over because the country has black leadership would be laughable were it not both demonstrably false and blithely offensive.


Name: Matthew Guenette said...

nice piece today, derek...

dcat said...

Thanks, Matt. Conservatives were in a euphoric tizzy any time there was even a hint of a racial dynamic in the Clinton-Obama race, and now when the issue is raised on things twice as obvious and twice as bad as anything Clinton supporters pulled, they go into a self-righteous tizzy of outrage that one could even think of such a thing.


Jaime said...

We can argue about the influence of race on this election until the end of time. But as it is currently discussed by all sides, that influence is an over simplification. The US is not nor has it ever been a Black and White society. For those of us that are not Black nor White, you all look the same to us from down here. As a Liberal I would be supporting Clinton if she had won the nomination. That discussion would have focused on an over simplified interpretation of the role gender plays in our society and ignore class differences. The current media breeds over simplification, which will limit our comprehension of the benefits that Obama may bring to the White House.

dcat said...

Jaime --
I agree -- the Am,erican racial dialogue needs to do more to move away from a binary conception. Living in Texas, and marrying as I did, I see that daily, and it has changed my own understanding of race relations. But in this particular race the black-white dynamic is the one that matters because those wielding race as a weapon are doing so explicitly against Obama (and from the flanks against Muslims).
And yes, Hillary's nomination would have changed the dynamic because of gender, but then McCain cynically would have chosen a black running mate. I'm just not certain this is the media's fault. Obama is black. McCain is not making that an issue, but a vocal number of his supporters are.


Jaime said...

"black-white dynamic is the one that matters because those wielding race as a weapon are doing so explicitly against Obama"

And there is my point. The simplification of his identity (which I think the media is running with, regardless of how the Republicans are using it) makes it a black-white dynamic. The fact that he is the son of an immigrant during a period of tremendous immigration controversy is almost negligent. He and McCain have both ignored the issue (this is understandable since it's a no win political campaign issue) during this campaign. For Latinos, employers of unskilled labor, and unskilled American labor this is a big issue that is being ignored. Obama the black candidate will probably win. But Obama, America's president, will have a chance to make significant gains for all ethnicities that I hope his presidency will accomplish.

dcat said...

I think we fundamentally agree. but your concerns are more overarching and deal with policy and long-term understanding of the issue of race and ethnicity. But for this campaign the issue falls more into the old race dynamic, into demagoguery over race that stems back to Jim crow and before. I think we are talking about different things. Though I do agree with you that the narrative gets softened and as a result of the loss of complexity, simplified in ways that we as scholars looks at disdainfully.