The Post-Racial Politics of Racial Fear

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I don't understand what it is to play the race card, so I don't use that expression. Race is fine to bring in when it's relevant and not ok to bring in when it's not, but such an expression seems to me to assume that it's always inappropriate. But I did want to say something about the following remarks (taken from here):

Nobody really thinks that Bush or McCain have [sic] a real answer for the challenges we face. So what they're going to try to do is make you scared of me. You know, he's not patriotic enough. He's got a funny name. You know, he doesn't look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills, you know. He's risky.

Notice that there's no explicit mention of race here. He also doesn't reference his middle name 'Hussein'. He just refers to it obliquely (or perhaps he's referring to his whole name, but it's his middle name that people have used against him). He also makes a veiled reference to his dark complexion with the comment about presidents on dollar bills. But he doesn't use any race terms. Further, when McCain called him out for playing the race card, his campaign denied that the dollar bill reference had anything to do with race. It was about his not being a Washington insider. (I sure hope he continues this line of defense, because if it becomes clear that he sees the founders of this country as evil Washington insiders whose government we need to do away with, then he's not going to be getting very far.) It seems as if he's dancing around the issues he wants to get across without saying anything about them. It makes it sound as if he's trying to engage in the politics of racial fear without losing his appearance of being a post-racial candidate of hope.

Compare his very similar speech from June 20:

The choice is clear. Most of all we can choose between hope and fear. It is going to be very difficult for Republicans to run on their stewardship of the economy or their outstanding foreign policy. We know what kind of campaign they're going to run. They're going to try to make you afraid. They're going to try to make you afraid of me. 'He's young and inexperienced and he's got a funny name. And did I mention he's black?'

Then the previous day (from the same source):

They're going to try to make me into a scary guy. They're even trying to make Michelle into a scary person. Right? I don't know, before I wasn't black enough. 'Now he might be too black. We don't know whether he's going to socialize - well, who knows what.'

This is (1) much more explicit, (2) very obviously about his race, and (3) exactly what his campaign was denying the more recent comment to have been about. It's hard to see this as anything but wanting to have it both ways. He's gotten a lot of traction from this post-racial stuff, even if he's never described himself or his campaign that way (it would indeed be offensive to many of his black supporters if he did, and they would be right to be offended at it). He's also running a campaign that he keeps describing as positive and a move away from the kind of politics of Washington and the negative racial politics of Sharpton and Jackson.

But at the same time he seems to be compelled to represent himself as the victim because of his race, when there's no evidence whatsoever that the McCain campaign will do anything other than what they've done so far, which is to go way out of their way to avoid anything racially negative. I don't think this should surprise us, though, because the candidate of hope needs to be a candidate of fear in order to present himself as the messianic alternative to all the evil that the opponent represents. If he can represent the status quo as bad, then identify McCain with it, then he's got the fear going independently in order to be the incarnation of hope himself.

But when it comes to racial hope, he has to be hope for two radically distinct approaches. He has to be hope for the faux color-blind, who think race is a thing of the past, something to get beyond, and he has to be hope for those who recognize that racial problems are real and won't go away just by being ok with black people and voting for a mixed-race candidate for president. He can't talk about race very much and has to speak positively about white people, or he won't be what the former group wants. But then he has to blame problems on racism for the second group to see him as authentic.

What he's chosen is entirely the wrong way to handle this. The right thing to do is teach people the ways that racial problems still occur even when everyone is well-intentioned, since those are the most pervasive and self-perpetuating kinds of racism. That's what the first group most needs. Then you call the second group on their victimology, letting them know that you can't just blame everything on racism unless there's a really good reason to think racism is involved. Of course, neither would be popular. But who expects Barack Obama to do what's unpopular, but both would seem to follow from the race speech he gave in order to distance himself from his long-time mentor Jeremiah Wright.

John McCain has already established himself as being willing to stick with his guns on unpopular positions. Remember the surge? He expected to lose the nomination over that one. Then he did it again with immigration. Those were issues where he was sure he was doing the right thing, and presidential hopes be damned. Obama sure sounded like he was giving a speech based on his deepest moral convictions. Yet he doesn't seem to be too quick to act on it. How often does he talk about ways racism can manifest itself in well-meaning people? Instead, he attributes evil motivations to someone who hasn't yet engaged in the behavior he's accusing him of being about to do (and by all evidence never will do it, either). I actually a liked a lot of what he said in his race speech, despite a number of minor quibbles and one or two more substantive worries. It would be nice if it were more than just words that he said in damage-control mode. If he really is going to be the first black president, I'd like it to be the Obama of that speech rather than the Obama of this campaign.

6 Comments

But at the same time he seems to be compelled to represent himself as the victim because of his race, when there's no evidence whatsoever that the McCain campaign will do anything other than what they've done so far, which is to go way out of their way to avoid anything racially negative.

The trouble is that while the McCain campaign is being scrupulous here, some McCain supporters are not. You don't have to look very far on certain kinds of blogs to discover this.

On my most recent trip home, I was not surprised at all to hear a man in overalls in Ohio say with disgust (as his extended family nodded their sympathy), "Well, our next president is gonna be an Arab, so what can you do?" I suppose you could interpret this as a religious remark more than a racial remark, but it's undeniably stupid, xenophobic, and racially charged either way.

It seems implausible that the widely circulated rumors about Obama's being a Muslim would be unrelated to his skin color. Would people believe them as readily if Obama's father were, say, Albanian? I am doubtful. On the other hand, these rumors circulate among Democrats as well as Republicans; in a recent Pew poll, 15% of McCain supporters believed it, and 9% of Obama supporters did.

Right, there have been people saying these things, so it's not complete victimology (the way black conservatives use the term to describe a pretense of victimhood when there's no victimhood). It's just misdirected victimhood and false accusations against the wrong offenders.

He very specifically does attribute it to the McCain campaign in one of the comments I quoted, and he leaves it ambiguous in another one whether it's Bush and McCain doing or it their supporters. Maybe the latter was one of his "inapt" comments, but I can see how most people reading or hearing that statement would think he's directly applying it to the McCain campaign even on its own. In the context of his earlier comment where he does attribute it to the McCain campaign, there's little doubt in my mind that he does seem to think that either (1) they're behind these other people doing this or (2) it's a good idea to make it seem as if they are. The first is unfair and paranoid, and the second is immoral. So I think McCain is right to complain.

I agree that Obama is being problematically vague, making inflammatory insinuations that he should not be making. However, I don't see him accusing the McCain campaign in those quotations.

As you say, the first statement you quote is ambiguous. In the second quotation, Obama does charge that "Republicans" will "run" a racial campaign, but I don't take that as a reference to the Official McCain Campaign. I take it as a reference to the contest, not the organization. Perhaps others would interpret it differently, but that's the interpretation that seems most natural to me.

I think Obama needs to be much more careful about accusing his detractors of racism. However, I am also well aware that he does face racism, some of it quite insidious. To take my earlier example, where exactly did that guy get the idea that Obama is an Arab/Muslim? There's no way of telling, but I have no doubt that right-wing communications networks, of some kind or another, had a lot to do with it. And the McCain campaign is probably not going to spend a lot of time discouraging that sort of myth, however hard they work to avoid spreading it.

It's hard for me to read "We know what kind of campaign they're going to run" as not directing itself to the official campaign. I couldn't imagine saying that in the context of a presidential campaign and then coming back but not meaning the candidate's official campaign. I could imagine saying that we know what kind of attacks they'll engage in and not mean the campaign, but he used the word 'campaign' when that word has a very specific meaning in the context of a presidential race. I think it's also interesting that the Obama campaign never made that defense. They didn't say he wasn't talking about the official campaign but just random supporters. They said he wasn't talking about race, which is thoroughly implausible.

I think the idea of his being a Muslim traces directly to his having an Arabic middle name common to Muslims, a Muslim father, and time spent at a Muslim boarding school. I don't think it has anything to do with his skin color. There are too many other connections with Islam to make it plausible to me that it's coming from his race. Also, there are a lot of black people in the U.S. who call themselves Muslims, but when most white Americans think Muslim they don't think black. They think Arab. The only people likely to connect being Muslim with being black are those who know lots of black Muslims, and they're a lot less likely to see being Muslim as bad and a lot less likely to see being black as bad.

I'm with you on most of this, Jeremy, but one small quibble: it isn't just Obama's middle name that is the matter of scrutiny. Certainly 'Hussein' draws attention, but Obama - rhymes with 'Osama' - is also used to suggest Arab or Islamic heritage. It's actually quite remarkable to me that two of his three names evoke the two great enemies of the Bush administration (Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden).

To the point, though, I definitely think Obama has something to gain politically by setting himself up as the unlikely candidate (even though the numbers are beyond any sort of perception as the underdog in this race), and so portraying himself as the individual who overcame all the odds, even racial prejudice, will resound with quite a few voters. I've heard many a time from some individuals that they would consider (all else being equal) voting for Obama over McCain because they would be part of electing the first black president. I have to believe that Obama gets that, even where he has tried (and might sincerely want) to minimize the importance of race in his campaign.

Of course, no one draws attention to the fact that his first name comes from the root for blessing in Hebrew (even if in his case it's more directly from Arabic).

Oh, I'd probably vote for a black candidate over a white one if they were otherwise pretty much exactly the same on the issues I care about. I think it's crazy, however, to vote for a candidate just because he's black, as if other things are always outweighed by that. Some of what I've heard from some black conservatives greatly surprises me on that score. They're pretty much opposed to everything Obama stands for, but they're strongly tempted to vote for him anyway just because he's black.

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