September 22, 2008


Barack Obama, John McCain and the Language of Race (BRENT STAPLES, 9/22/08, NY Times)

It was not that long ago that black people in the Deep South could be beaten or killed for seeking the right to vote, talking back to the wrong white man or failing to give way on the sidewalk. [...]

In what is probably a harbinger of things to come, the McCain campaign has already run a commercial that carries a similar intimation, accusing Mr. Obama of being “disrespectful” to Sarah Palin. The argument is muted, but its racial antecedents are very clear.

The throwback references that have surfaced in the campaign suggest that Republicans are fighting on racial grounds, even when express references to race are not evident. In a replay of elections past, the G.O.P. will try to leverage racial ghosts and fears without getting its hands visibly dirty. The Democrats try to parry in customary ways.

Mr. Obama seems to understand that he is always an utterance away from a statement — or a phrase — that could transform him in a campaign ad from the affable, rational and racially ambiguous candidate into the archetypical angry black man who scares off the white vote. His caution is evident from the way he sifts and searches the language as he speaks, stepping around words that might push him into the danger zone.

These maneuvers are often painful to watch. The troubling part is that they are necessary.

This is an archetypal instance of what Tom Wolfe termed Mau-mauing. Mr. Staples is trying to prey on white guilt in order to slence any criticism of Mr. Obama. After all, if "desrespectful" is such a racially charged term that it can be used without running the risk that the Senator will be killed, then what can critics safely say about him?

Of course, the problem is that it's been thirty years since most Americans were willing to lie back and catch that sort of flak. Nowadays we properly note the fear and loathing of his own country that must animate the author if he truly believes this nonsense. Kind of sad when giving him the benefit of the doubt means assuming he's just trying to exploit race for partisan political purposes.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 22, 2008 4:35 PM
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