This Election Hangs On Race? Whose Fault Will That Be, Greeley?

June 17, 2008

Roman Catholic priest and Chicago Sun-Times columnist Andrew Greeley thinks that racial prejudice is everywhere, and is a major player in this election:

How many of the male readers of this column who are habitues of bars, locker rooms, commuter train bull sessions, pool rooms and men’s clubs have not heard the indigenous racial slurs of such environments applied to Obama?

Now, I didn’t and still don’t think that the “Obama’s crazy minister, Jeremiah Wright” controversy was much more than hype, but I have to concur with the folks at National Review’s blog Corner:

But if Father Greely were really concerned about ubiquitous racism, rather than politics, why hunt for it in locker rooms, bars, and other stealthy places, while neglecting it when it is openly aired and audaciously voiced by Father Pfleger from the pulpit of Trinity Church?

It seems very dubious to attack racism generally as a pernicious influence all while giving a pass to Obama’s own racially charged allies… who he has been forced, repeatedly, to denounce. And don’t get me wrong here. I certainly don’t think it’s fair to besmirch Obama based on the views of others: views that he’s shown no direct evidence of sharing. But I just wish that same charity could be extended to more of the American public as well.

Race as a subject in politics is a sort of catch-22. If you don’t pay much attention to it, then people can later argue that you ignored a really important sub-text. It could be, as some fear, that a considerable number of racists will quietly vote against Obama this year. But on the other hand, making a lot of noise about race is as good a way as any to ensure that bitter racial disputes will come to the fore, and dominate the debate in an ugly way. Based largely in innuendo and interpretation, along with healthy doses of cultural disconnect (which is not the same thing as racism), racial tensions in politics tend to feed on themselves.

And in any case, if racists really are likely to quietly vote against Obama, it’s hard for me to see what making a significant fuss about it is going to accomplish. If people consciously act out of secret racist motives, then aren’t they quite unlikely to change their votes because of some general accusation of widespread racism? And if they subconsciously have racial motives, as Greeley alleges, then calling them out on it isn’t going to make people already in denial more self-aware: it’s just going to make them feel insulted and see Obama’s defenders as taking cheap shots for petty advantage.

I guess I just don’t see what good focusing so much on the problem would do (aside from firing up the Democratic base) no matter what you think the level of secret or overt racism at play is. If you think that Obama’s candidacy faces its greatest hurdle in some sort of ubiquitous American racism, then fine. No one can easily prove or disprove that view… but what can we really do about it aside from kvetch?

It makes far more sense, in my mind, for Obama’s well meaning allies to give up on bemoaning racism, and focus on just convincing people like the man and his policies directly. If people are quietly racist, then the best cure is for them to discover that they like and respect the candidate who happens to be black.

That will change racial attitudes, overt and covert alike. That approach is going to go much farther fighting racism than stoking the fires of bitterness and outrage at a largely invisible and untrackable beast of indeterminable size.


Obama Goes There: Pulls Race Rank on Republicans

June 20, 2008

Bad move, I think.

“We know what kind of campaign they’re going to run,” said the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. “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?’”

Even if Obama is dead positive that Republicans are going to push hard on racial prejudice, getting out there ahead of them is just dumb. It might help rally Democrats who’ll believe nothing but the worst of their political opposites, but the unavoidable implication Obama is making here is that Republicans and Independents are dangerously susceptible to racist cues.

Believe that’s true if you want. But you still can’t avoid the implication that it’s simply insulting to anyone who fancies themselves undecided and thus the implied fertile target of subtle bigotry. And that’s just not likely to win anyone over. As I noted before in response to an Obama support who sees racism everywhere, it’s basically a lose lose move.

In similar comments at a Chicago fundraiser last Thursday, Obama told supporters that Republicans would try to portray both him and his wife Michelle as “scary.”

“They’re going to try to make me into a scary guy,” he said last week. “They’re even trying to make Michelle into a scary person. Right?” And so that drumbeat – ‘we’re not sure if he’s patriotic or not; we’re not sure if he is too black.’

“I don’t know, before I wasn’t black enough,” said Obama. “‘Now he might be too black. We don’t know whether he’s going to socialize – well, who knows what.'”

It’s especially unfortunate, because otherwise Obama has things dead right here about what everyone from Fox to 527s will be busy doing over the next few months. Well, and of course what everyone from MoveOn to Michael Moore will be busy trying to do to McCain. They’ll just be telling different sorts of stories.