The Playing the Race Card… Card

September 19, 2008

We all know that the hyper-media age is a brave and bizarre new place, where “meta-” counts for far more than meat. Marc Armbinder has the latest dispatch from the front lines: Playing The “Playing The Race Card” Card.

Once upon a time, the rules were simple. Republicans, who usually have to scramble to find one or two African American faces to highlight in their conventions (including having to resort to using stock photography of them), have the temerity to actually include African American politicians like, say, Barack Obama (coincidence? I think not!), in their political attack ads. Someone, somewhere (and just about anyone anywhere will do) complains that the usage was racist: meant to subtly play on racial discord and feelings of otherness. The Republicans would then lean back, hands in the air, eyes rolling, and accuse all Democrats and Presidential candidates everywhere, whether they had actually complained or not, of “playing the race card.” This response is devastatingly effective, primarily because it allows the very same people who definitely aren’t moved by subtle racist appeals to have the same response to the ad/controversy as if they were moved by them. You see, they don’t hate African Americans, they just hate how those African Americans are always whinily pointing out that they are African Americans, and having the temerity to exist in a universe in which some people find some things potentially racist.

Wait, did I say that the rules were simple? What I meant was that they were totally insane.

But anyhow, now we have another meta-layer to add to the whole thing: as Armbinder points out, there’s a possibility that Republicans could now be deliberately using African Americans in their ads so that they can start off the “race card” chain.

Case in point: a newly minted (and laughably implausible) attempt to link Obama for the current financial crisis by pointing out that he knows former and talks to Fannie Mae employees. Specifically, the ad uses a supposedly sinister African American as its example, despite the fact that a former Fannie Mae CEO, and noted white male, is far more closely connected to the Obama campaign. And then there is a sad, obviously pained, white woman thrown in for good measure.

Is the ad racist? Ye gods, I have no idea anymore!

But here’s the thing. It’s very hard to imagine the McCain ad-meisters who came up with this ad not having a very conscious discussion over how the ad would be perceived, and whether it would spark accusations of racism, and whether that would be politically advantageous. Dial us up a white granny and see if they’ll fall for it!

So are non-racist guys who consider exploiting people’s non-racist anger over allegations of racism… racist? Ye gods, I still have no idea, but now I have a headache!

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Obama Still Wrong on Race: McCain’s Smears Of a Different Sort

July 31, 2008

Josh Marshall over at Talkingpoints Memo is having a little spat with Jake Tapper at ABC. The subject? Whether Obama is right to imply that McCain has been pushing xenophobia and racist themes in his recent bout of negative campaigning.

As Obama put it:

“But, since they don’t have any new ideas the only strategy they’ve got in this election is to try to scare you about me. They’re going to try to say that I’m a risky guy, they’re going to try to say, ‘Well, you know, he’s got a funny name and he doesn’t look like all the presidents on the dollar bills and the five dollar bills and, and they’re going to send out nasty emails.

But Tapper has it right here.

Read the rest of this entry »


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.