The Political Rhetoric of Race and Racism Invokes Historical Perspective and Potential Backlash

BlogHer Original Post

Race continues to be a factor in the presidential campaign this year and in recent weeks has been raised as an issue in ways that have led observers to analyze the issue through historical lenses.

Nicholas Kristof, in an Op-Ed in the New York Times noted that there was a "push to 'otherize' Obama." Kristof describes some of the forms this otherization is taking:

What is happening, I think, is this: religious prejudice is becoming a proxy for racial prejudice. In public at least, it’s not acceptable to express reservations about a candidate’s skin color, so discomfort about race is sublimated into concerns about whether Mr. Obama is sufficiently Christian.

This type of othering has moved from email rumor campaigns to much more explicit and public expressions. The Mayor of Fort Mill, South Carolina sought scriptural backup for the rumor that Obama is the antichrist. In North Carolina a real estate agency put up a sign reading "Obsama-Obama. Not American. Not Welcome." Karen Tumulty, in Time magazine, reports that The Virginia state GOP chairman urged volunteers to compare Barack Obama to Osama bin Laden as they go campaigning door to door. Recently at a John McCain town hall appearance a woman told McCain that she could not trust Obama because she read that "he's an Arab." McCain did take the microphone from the woman and say that it was not true but unfortunately did so in a way that implied that Arab people are not decent family people as BlogHer member, ManagementProf noted. And Rochelle Nelson at Sagacious Rambling reports that the woman who made the statement about Obama remains unconvinced despite McCain's rebuttal.

As the economy crumbles, McCain-Palin campaign rallies have become hotbeds of racism from subtle to overt from audience members, campaign surrogates and Sarah Palin herself. At recent campaign stops surrogates introducing the candidates have referred to "Barack Hussein Obama" and audience members at the mention of Obama's name have yelled out "terrorist" and "kill him." They've yelled at an African American sound man for a television network covering the event to, "Sit down, boy." A man displayed a stuffed monkey with an Obama sticker on it and then passed it off when he realized that he was on camera. They've accused Obama of "treason." (Stephania Pomponi Butler has a round up of racist smears and denouncements at MOMocrats)

And it is not just at campaign events where such sentiment is being heard.

Debbie Gorman at MOMocrats reports that at her workplace she has heard from two people that they would not vote for "a black" or a "goddamn ni**er" (Oh, and Palin's "a babe").

At an Oregon university "a life-size cardboard reproduction of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama was hung from a tree on the campus, an act with racial undertones that outraged students and school leaders alike."

Republican Party spokesperson, Didi Lima was removed from her role in McCain's campaign after making "racial remarks"

Maud Newton shares the story of a Florida teacher who taught his seventh-grade social studies class that Obama's call for change stood for "Can You Help A (expletive) Get Elected."

TPM reader libgirl reports that two young men yelled "N***** lover" at her (and her six year old) while standing in her yard which displays and Obama sign.

Conservative observers have compared a video of young men performing step dancing while expressing how Obama has inspired them as like "Nazi Youth" or as an example of Obama's training of "militant radicals."

Some watchers of the most recent debate wondered if McCain's response to a question asked by a young black man was subtly racist when McCain assumed that the questioner probably hadn't heard of Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac prior to the current economic crisis. The young man responded on his Facebook page and he too wonders:

In defense of the Senator from Arizona I would say he is an older guy, and may have made an underestimation of my age. Honest mistake. However, it could be because I am a young African-American male.

And, perhaps most frighteningly, there are reports of incitements to and threats of violence, property damage and, in one case, actual violence (a man was shot for wearing an Obama T-shirt).

The news is not all sad and scary, though. A Daily Kos reader reports a positive racial encounter from the campaign trail:

Early on, my canvassing partner and I ran into two young black men - bling, tattooes, etc. I try not to be racist - but it was all I could do not to be scared to death. They came up to us - and we introduced ourselves. The one gentleman's name is Kai. I asked Kai if he was registered to vote - he said No and we discussed how he could register. He looked up at me - and I swear he was tearing up in his eyes - he said - "You are the first white man who has ever spoken to me with respect in my life.

In another attempt to inject racism into the campaign, there has been a concerted effort to blame the economic crisis on lending to "minorities." Unsurprisingly, conservative pundits like Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin are fanning the flames of this talking point. But Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachman made similar charges on the floor of Congress.

Although the ugliness I've noted above has all happened in the past month, there is much historical precedent for the roots of this behavior. Journalists have begun to call on their colleagues to not ignore our nation's history of race.

Journalists need to do more than call the play-by-play this election cycle. We also need to blow the whistle on such egregious fouls calculated to undermine the political process and magnify the ugliest prejudices that our nation has done so much to overcome.

Donna Brazile recalls living in the segregated South and speaks of the conversation on race we are now having because of Obama's campaign:

I’m gonna say it and get it off my chest, because for the next thirty days, I’m gonna be the best Catholic woman ever….As a child who grew up in the segregated Deep South, we’ve come so far in this country….But I remember when I used to get on the bus: my mother would tell me, “Donna, when you get on the bus, you and your brothers go all the way to the back, and don’t look at anybody.” We have changed. This is a more tolerant, open, progressive society. And yet, we’re having this conversation because [Obama] is biracial. He spent nine months in the womb of a white woman. He was raised…by his white grandparents…He got out of school and went to Harvard, and all of a sudden he’s “uppity” and there’s something wrong with him? What is wrong with us?…You can vote against him, but don’t ever put me in the back of the bus. I’m not going to the back of the bus! I’m not going to be afraid! My black skin does not make me inferior! And may I add: being a female does not make me dumb!

Kai Wright at The Root announces: Breaking News: It's Racism:

Americans have notoriously short memories, so it's often assumed that the critical clamor journalists hear from both left and right is new. It actually began with Southern segregationists brow beating Northern news organizations covering the Civil Rights Movement. Both sides of the Jim Crow battle knew the news media would shape how the country viewed them, so segregationists did all they could to make reporters part of the story. The liberal-media trope was their brainchild, and they used it to provoke the sort of false moral equivalencies that today's political reporters too often draw.

When a member of the crowd at a Republican rally yelled, "bomb Obama" Rachel Maddow put it in perspective when she wondered if the woman meant bomb like the four little girls who were bombed in a church in 1963.

Peter Beinart at Time magazine gives some historical perspective to the racial attacks on Obama and shares a picture that illustrates why attacks on Obama frighten many - his need for protection

Obama supporters and bodyguard
Obama with supporters, and a bodyguard, in Waterford, Mich.

Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights leader who was beaten by police during the Selma to Montgomery marches, hears echoes of that time in McCain and Palin's rhetoric:

As one who was a victim of violence and hate during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, I am deeply disturbed by the negative tone of the McCain-Palin campaign. What I am seeing reminds me too much of another destructive period in American history. Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are sowing the seeds of hatred and division, and there is no need for this hostility in our political discourse.

Gary Kamiya at Salon.com writes The GOP goes back to its ugly roots:

McCain is resurrecting the GOP’s oldest tactic: Smearing Obama as a scary black terrorist sympathizer. But he may meet the same fate as Barry Goldwater.

Frank Rich, writing at the New York Times, notes:

From the start, there have always been two separate but equal questions about race in this election. Is there still enough racism in America to prevent a black man from being elected president no matter what? And, will Republicans play the race card? The jury is out on the first question until Nov. 4. But we now have the unambiguous answer to the second: Yes.

To the second question there are signs of backlash within his own party:

Christopher Buckley, son of conservative hero, William F. Buckley, endorses Obama (and not at conservative publication The National Review where he has a regular column because colleague Kathleen Parker "has to date received 12,000 (quite literally) foam-at-the-mouth hate-emails" for speaking out against the selection of Sarah Palin). Carla Marinucchi at the San Francisco Chronicle writes that McCain-Palin's hot rhetoric risks GOP backlash.

To the first question, although fears of the Bradley Effect have been widely noted, other observers believe that race plays out in voting through a number of different mechanisms and not only do not believe that there will not be a Bradley Effect but that Obama may reshape intersections of racial attitudes and voting in a way that will lead us to speak of the Obama Effect in the future. Despite the painful revival of our history of race and racism, the conversations that we are having might be shaping a new and brighter future.

But what if Obama loses some ask? Two writers come to similar conclusions - that even though there will be inevitable feelings that racism will have played a role if Obama is defeated, ultimately the national conversations around race that Obama is prompting are positive for our country.

But, if Obama does win, perhaps it will signal as Nicholas Kristof describes in his excellent article, "Racism Without Racists" (which points out how unconscious discrimination functions):

One lesson from this research is that racial biases are deeply embedded within us, more so than many whites believe. But another lesson, a historical one, is that we can overcome unconscious bias. That’s what happened with the decline in prejudice against Catholics after the candidacy of John F. Kennedy in 1960.

It just might happen again, this time with race.

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BlogHer CE Maria Niles also blogs about politics and news her personal blog PopConsumer.

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