Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Playing with Race

It would be imprudent on Sen. Barack Obama’s part to imagine that racism will take a holiday during his campaign. It is therefore prudent of him to head it off at the pass.

At the end of June, after Obama warned a friendly crowd it could expect a resurgence of racism, the Washington Post ran a story about neo-Nazis and segregationist groups spurring racism on internet sites.

The presence of some racist bad apples on the internet should not give anyone pause to suppose that the opposition party apple cart is infested with racists and, though it doesn’t happen often enough, even racists are redeemable. Sen. Robert Byrd waved farewell to the Klu Klux Klan long ago and grew up to be, at present, the longest serving senator in the U.S. Congress. Conservatives and Republican well wishers have in their stables many non-racists politicians and political commentators such as Condoleezza Rice and Thomas Sowell, both of whom are African American non-racists.

Still less should anyone suppose that Obama’s primary opponent, Sen. Hillary Clinton, has caught the disease simply because her campaign has made reference, when appropriate, to Obama’s race. Indeed, Obama himself has made such references, and we all can agree he is no neo-nazi skinhead.

In the coming days, it will be important to remember that many Republicans welcomed Obama’s campaign as an indication that the candidate had successfully presented himself as a trans-racial candidate, a man who would be able to unify and even heal racial ruptures between black and white Americans.

There are two ways to be racist, both offensive. One may be either an unapologetic racist – neo-Nazi skin heads fall into this category -- or a subtle racist, someone who is able to sublimate his racism by taking refuge in racially tinged metaphors that hitch the lodestone of racism to ideals, Christian or secular, loved and cherished by most people.

The subtle racist, made familiar to us most recently in the sermons of Black Power preacher Rev. Jeremiah Wright, falsely accuses right minded, well intentioned whites of racism to advance some private cause.

The seat of racism is the heart, not the mind. The mind may be moved by convincing arguments. But the heart is moved by affections, as puritan divine Jonathan Edwards, the author of "A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections," well knew. One supposes the book is not much reccommended these days in theological schools.

There are dangers in imputing racism where there is none. At some point, the public figures out that the imputation is a rhetorical gimmick usually used by adept politicians to escape scrutiny, and the Peter and the wolf principle kicks in. Having cried “Wolf!”a sufficient number of times when there is no wolf, the public will discount all cries when the wolf really turns up at the door licking his chops.

Not all criticisms of Obama ought to be labeled racist simply because they are directed at a black presidential candidate – not even when they are launched by Democrat spoiler Ralph Nader.

In a recent interview with Rocky Mountain News, perennial “also ran” presidential candidate Nader speculated that Obama had not come out strongly against exploitation in the ghettos – payday loans, predatory lending, asbestos and lead poisoning – because he may have fallen into the habit of “talking white.” Questioned further, Nader explained, "He wants to show that he is not a threatening . . . another politically threatening African-American politician. He wants to appeal to white guilt. You appeal to white guilt not by coming on as black is beautiful, black is powerful. Basically he's coming on as someone who is not going to threaten the white power structure, whether it's corporate or whether it's simply oligarchic. And they love it. Whites just eat it up."

Nader has his own agenda, but he is no racist. Nader is an anti-corporation Kropotkinist. He quite understands that in a general as opposed to a primary campaign, candidates who do not appeal to the broad middle but remain, as he will, on the bitter edge of marginal political movements tend to lose campaigns. Obama's march to the center has little to do with appeals to “white guilt” and more to do with effective campaign strategy.

There is no question that Obama knows how to run a campaign. Whether he knows how to run a country better than, say, Nader or Sen. John McCain is very much an open question that can be best explored only when racists of all stripes are ushered from the room.
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