Archive for the ‘racism’ Category

Is Obama playing the race card? Is McCain a racist?

August 5, 2008

Sunday talk shows included comments that Barack Obama, by suggesting that his opponents would state that he looked different from other Presidents, had introduced the race card, and in so doing, had made a bad week for himself that included slippage in the polls.  In so-doing, they were taking their lead from the McCain campaign which had received Obama’s suggestion as a charge that John McCain was a racist.  It is important to see that if a race card was being played, it was being played by both campaigns.  By suggesting that his opponents would state that he looked different from other Presidents, Obama was, of course, referring to his race, and by claiming that Obama had accused McCain of being a racist, the McCain campaign was, of course, introducing race into the political campaign. 

But Obama had not accused McCain of being a racist, even if he had said that McCain’s campaign might suggest he looked different.  This may seem like splitting hairs, but it isn’t.  Two points make this clear: first, John McCain and the McCain campaign are two quite distinct entities, just as Barack Obama and the Obama campaign are quite distinct entities.  Of course, John McCain must accept responsibility for his campaign, just as Barack Obama must accept responsibility for his.  My simple point is that the McCain campaign can make a point about Obama’s race as a tactic independently of whether McCain is or is not a racist.  But secondly, the McCain campaign cannot afford to be explicitly racist.  If the McCain campaign openly made recognizable racist statements, the McCain campaign would be dead in the water.  Not only would the media jump on this, but the the majority of Americans who share a basic sense of decency would be highly offended.  So if the McCain campaign is going to play the race card, be assured that it will be below the radar, and at as imperceptible a level as possible.  By the same token, Obama can not afford to play the race card.  The same Americans that would be offended by explicit racism coming from the McCain campaign would be offended by any suggestion from Obama that his opponents would intentionally use race to defeat him. 

So is Obama playing the race card?  and Is McCain a racist?  Is race an issue in this campaign, and if so, how has it become an issue?  There is no simple answer to these questions.  There is no simple answer because for most Americans at this point in our history, it is no longer socially acceptable to engage intentionally in forms of thought and action which are readily identifiable as racist.  Evidence for this claim is found in the quickness with which most of us (including Senator McCain) deny that we are racist at the first suggestion that something we have said or done may be so-perceived. This fact about American culture has not, of course, put an end to racism.  It has driven racism underground and led to more subtle and devious ways of expressing it. 

With respect to the parallel issues of whether Obama is playing the race card, or whether McCain is a racist, my position is that all of us are racist, and neither Obama nor McCain can escape that reality.  The root of racism is in the perception that someone or something is different from, or other than ourselves, and the further perception that what is different from, or other than ourselves, in some way, at some level, poses a threat to either our enterprise, or in the worst case, to ourselves.  The root of racism is biological in two ways.  First, the differences that initially fuel our fears are biological differences, including our physical appearance.  Secondly, the fears arising in response to these perceived differences are fears relating to survival.  It is important to note that the fear response can arise in the context of perceived physical differences far less evident than race, and that differences in physical appearance are only one set of differences that can generate a fear response.  When the cold war began, in my childish imagination I imagined every Russian to be much larger in size than the average American, and believed that their disposition could only be compared with that of bears.   Perceived cultural differences can generate the same biological response of fear related to survival.  In urban areas in which persons of diverse cultures live in contiguous pockets, there has historically been a significant level of tension at the edges of these pockets where interaction between persons of different cultures becomes unavoidable.  Every immigrant group had its particular biases, jokes, and terms of abuse for persons from groups other than their own. 

Of course, with the passage of time and the acquisition of experience, most of us try to outgrow our fear of that which is different, and to mute those responses growing out of our primitive fears revolving around our survival.  And to varying degrees we succeed.  But our success is never complete.  There are traces of racism in every last one of us.

So what does this mean for the first Presidential campaign in which an African-American is running against a Caucasian?  It means that racism is going to be a factor no matter who says or does what.  Racism shapes our sensibilities, even if it has a limited affect on what we say or do.  So I think there should be two simple rules:

First, everyone involved in this campaign, whether candidates, campaign staff, citizens, and especially, representatives of the media should resolve to work as hard as they can to avoid saying or doing anything that can be construed as racist.  This applies not only to explicit forms of racism, but to the myriad of below the radar, subtle forms that racism can take.  The race card simply should not be played.

Secondly, charges and counter charges of racism should be taken off of the table, not only by the candidates and their campaigns, but also by the media.  They should be taken off the table, not because race will not be a factor, but because no one can make such a charge without being guilty of the very thing of which he is charging others.  To be sure, any explicit expressions that are obviously racist have to be seen for what they are.  When either candidate makes an explicit reference to race, they should be held accountable for doing so. 

Two things must be avoided at all costs:

First, neither campaign should set itself up as the judge of whether the other campaign is playing the race card, or being racist.  The resolve of both campaigns should be to have the greatest degree of integrity possible by doing everything possible to prevent making race a factor in this campaign.

Second, media personnel should get off of their judgement seat and recognize that because of their personal history with racism, they are in no position to make judgements about whether either Obama and his campaign, or McCain and his campaign are playing the race card, and therefore, trading on racism.