Senator George Allen (R, VA) has come under a lot of fire recently for being unwilling to say that he had Jewish ancestry. He he may have been just respecting his mother's wishes, considering his obligation to her saying this in confidence to outweigh the interest of the public in knowing his ancestry (and I can see how people might disagree over which moral issues are more decisive there). He also used the word 'macaca' to describe an Indian American. He called it a term of endearment that had no meaning, but it's known in some places as a racial epithet, including in French North Africa, where Allen's mother is from, although she claims never to have heard it. Allen has been slipping in the polls for his reelection to the Senate, and I think this is might end his chances at a potential presidential run for 2008.
But the latest news is that anyone switching their vote from Allen to his opponent, James Webb, had better not be doing it out of an expectation that Webb is more racially sensitive. Webb has been unwilling to say whether he has ever used the N-word. [hat tip: Racialicious] People who knew him in his youth have said that he did use it in those days, and his unwillingness to own up to it is ruffling some feathers. He says he knows he's never used it as a racial epithet but can't recall if he's used it in another way. I had first thought that he might just be confusing use and mention, and he wasn't willing to say that he'd never used it, thinking that just mentioning the word to talk about the word counts as using it (which it doesn't), but the allegations do not involve simply mentioning the word. They involve using it as a racial epithet (which is what he says he knows he never did).
Whatever you think about the tactics of those who have been trying to draw out these politicians on such things, I think one moral of the story is quite clear. You shouldn't get mad at a politician for stuff like this and then decide to vote for the other person unless you have good reason to believe the other person is any better on the relevant issue. In this case, he doesn't seem to be.
But two facts are worth keeping in mind:
(1) This is the state that was willing to take their insistence on banning interracial marriage as far as the Supreme Court, so it's not surprising that successful politicians from the state have remnants of the unpleasant history of racial and ethnic issues. In Allen's case, there might be an insensitivity and ignorance about certain racial issues, and perhaps he's inherited a lack of concern for how offensive certain kinds of things might sound to those with a very different social and cultural background. Clearly it's not surpising to find white Virginians of Webb's age who used the N-word in their youth who now are embarassed about it.
(2) Racism has one of the few politically unforgivable sins, even though recent work in race has shown the complexity of racialization and how racism has affected even well-intentioned people. In one sense, everyone is a racist. We all exhibit unintentional responses to people we've been conditioned to see as "them" when compared with those considered "us". Some of us don't like those elements of how we've been conditioned, and we seek to avoid them and overcome them. Others care less about it or are simply ignorant. But anything in the area is treated on the political level as if the person is a card-carrying member of the KKK, and that means hardly anyone is going to be encouraged to own up to being so affected, even with distantly past events that one is embarassed about. Are these hesitatations and denials all that surprising, then?