Are All Anti-Obama Ads Racist?

A concern that I’ve expressed since the days of the primary campaign is that, because Barack Obama looks black, virtually any criticism lodged against him can be seen in racial terms.  (The same was true of gender in any attacks against Hillary Clinton.)   The latest example is the bold proclamation from TIME’s Karen Tumulty: “McCain Plays the Race Card.”  His offense?   This ad:

Says Tumulty,

This is hardly subtle: Sinister images of two black men, followed by one of a vulnerable-looking elderly white woman.

Let me stipulate: Obama’s Fannie Mae connections are completely fair game. But this ad doesn’t even mention a far more significant tie–that of Jim Johnson, the former Fannie Mae chairman who had to resign as head of Obama’s vice presidential search team after it was revealed he got a sweetheart deal on a mortgage from Countrywide Financial. Instead, it relies on a fleeting and tenuous reference in a Washington Post Style section story to suggest that Obama’s principal economic adviser is former Fannie Mae Chairman Frank Raines. Why? One reason might be that Johnson is white; Raines is black.

And the image of the victim doesn’t seem accidental either, given the fact that older white women are a key swing constituency in this election.

Gee whiz.  There were two black men in the ad.   One, Barack Obama, is the target of the ad.  He is, for those not keeping up with such things, the Democratic nominee and the current frontrunner in the race for president.  The other, Harold Raines, is the chief subject of the ad and the former chairman of an entity that’s been in the news lately. Neither, frankly, look particularly “sinister.” Indeed, Obama is smiling in most of the images. (Isn’t that a racial stereotype, too? -ed.) Were ads in 2004 tying George W. Bush to Enron’s Ken Lay racist because they were both white?

As to the elderly white woman, Tumulty explains it rather nicely in the charge itself. It’s a key constituency McCain needs to influence.

How does one criticize a black politician without letting on that he’s black? Or is any use of the image of a black opponent in an ad presumptively racist? Or is it just any criticism of a black opponent?

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FILED UNDER: Campaign 2008, Race and Politics, US Politics, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Billy says:

    Willful ignorance doesn’t become you James. Address the omissions you referenced in your arguments and maybe you can make your case; simply saying it’s not racist does not get the job done.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Is Tumulty saying that all images of black men are sinister? Yes, the images were of black men. I didn’t find them sinister. You?

  3. rodney dill says:

    There is no racist context in the ad. Good call.

    The images used here are far less belittling than some of ‘McCain’ and ‘Bush’ used in Obama ads.

  4. Floyd says:

    The Racist sees racism everywhere he looks, as if the image of racism is seared on his retina.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    The Racist sees racism everywhere he looks, as if the image of racism is seared on his retina.

    Consciousness-raising. When one’s consciousness has been raised with respect to race, everything is about race.

  6. RW Rogers says:

    There is a similar ad featuring Jim Johnson. It was released yesterday as well. Perhaps Tumulty overlooked this fact.

  7. Alex Knapp says:

    Tumulty is being silly here. There’s no racism in this bit, and the furor over that is going to hide the real issue, which is that the ad is a bald-faced lie. Raines isn’t an advisor to the Obama campaign. Apparently, they’ve only ever met once.

    Given that McCain has members of the boards of AIG and Merrill Lynch as officers in his campaign, I don’t think that he’s got much room to complain about Obama’s associates!

  8. Cernig says:

    Lord, but I’m tired of this style of campaigning. The McCain campaign said it wanted to make the election about “personalities, not issues”. Tumulty and now you, all unwitting, are just going along with that gagging prescription.

    It’s the economy, stupid.

    Regards, C

  9. The best sign that the ad is on target is when the Obama supporters and the NYT (but I repeat myself) don’t dispute the facts, but call racism. A cry of racism from the left is a sure sign that they are guilty of what is charged.

  10. I must disagree on two counts. First, I’m not sure how you can claim Obama is the frontrunner given that he and McCain are in a statistical dead heat. Second, sinister is objective. When I watch the ad, Raines looks sinister. You don’t think so, but that doesn’t make either one of us any more right on that particular call.

    Also, you should know the difference between overt and subtle racism. Enough of the electorate will be cued to the fact that Obama is taking advice from a “sinister” looking black guy they’ll find that a turn off. Not every commercial is geared to uberintellectuals. Many are aimed at folks whose fears will be stoked by racial imagery. Just because you don’t want it to be racist, doesn’t make it so.

  11. Bithead says:

    Willful ignorance doesn’t become you James. Address the omissions you referenced in your arguments and maybe you can make your case; simply saying it’s not racist does not get the job done.

    A small point you may have missed in your hurry to erect a reasonable sounding defense…. Simply saying is IS racist doesn’t make it so either, and you ahve yet to prove your case, or even attempt to offer any definitions of racism within context.

    And YAJ calls this one.

  12. Michael says:

    There is no racist context in the ad. Good call.

    I completely agree. There is more required for racism than skin color.

    The best sign that the ad is on target is when the Obama supporters and the NYT (but I repeat myself) don’t dispute the facts, but call racism.

    Probably true, but even when the facts can be disputed, it’s often easier to just kill the messenger. It’s almost always more politically expedient.

  13. legion says:

    Well, if you believe any ad that addresses Palin’s capabilities is sexist, you probably believe any ad about Obama is racist. But then, you probably believe everything the McCain campaign says, so there’s there’s really no point is a reasonable discussion 🙂

  14. Bithead says:

    It’s the economy, stupid.

    If that’s the case, then Raines is a valid target, being the man at the helm of F&F duringa 10 billion dollar scandal, which in turn is the proximate cause of your currenteconomic situation… along with forcing banks to loan to people with no credit. So too, then is Obama, who also benefitted from Raines being at F&F.(Acorn?)

  15. cian says:

    James,

    Don’t know about it being racist, but is it true? The Obama camp says he never gave them advise, as does Raines. What is the basis for this claim?

    Anybody know? Or care?

  16. Steve Verdon says:

    Barack Obama is black? Damn, who knew?

  17. markm says:

    “Barack Obama is black? Damn, who knew?”

    I read somewhere he’s actually Halfrican American…

  18. Billy says:

    Bit – once again your response is entirely tangential to anything that has been said. Please learn to read before posting again.

  19. There are multiple Washington Post articles referencing the Obama campaign consulting with Franklin Raines about housing policy. I don’t have them at hand but I’m sure Alex can find them if he wants to. It is true that Mr. Raines doesn’t work for the Obama campaign as such, but it is not true that there are no links between them.

  20. Eneils Bailey says:

    Did not know until early this morning that Raines is a black person.

    I have known for months that BHO is a black person.
    Did not judge him on the color of his hide, but the political red meat he put on the table. I could not disagree with him more, on where he wants to take this country and his policies.

    Why can’t we say willful ignorance and bad judgment should not be exposed?

  21. cian says:

    Charles,

    It would be helpful to read some of those articles, and I know the Washington Post has reported on this connection, but using blind sourcing (Raines himself?). The Obama camp is fairly definite that Raines has never advised Obama, on anything. Raines also denies advising them.

    If Raines did advise Obama then the McCain campaign has every right to place Raines and Obama side by side. However, if the connection is a lie, then the ad is racist.

  22. Steve Verdon says:

    Here is a link to some information from the WaPo about the Raines/Obama link. It is thin, but not completely made up.

    I’d hardly say that this qualifies for calling something racist.

    If Raines did advise Obama then the McCain campaign has every right to place Raines and Obama side by side. However, if the connection is a lie, then the ad is racist.

    The logic here is mindboggling in that it appears that the only reason for calling the ad racist is because Obama is black (I’m still in shock on this revelation), and so is Raines. Soooo…any ad with Obama and another black man is racist?

    Seems to me this is an attack ad based on some rather thin facts and that the race of the people involved is incidental.

    Try again cian.

  23. Alex Knapp says:

    Charles,

    At your suggestion, I ran a search in the Washington Post on “Barack Obama” and “Franklin Raines.” I found this tidbit:

    http://voices.washingtonpost.com/fact-checker/2008/09/obamas_fannie_mae_connection.html

    In essence, it looks like some guy in the Obama campaign made a couple of phone calls to Raines, and that Raines is not part of the campaign, nor did he speak with Obama directly. So McCain’s ad is more of a mustachioed lie than a bald-faced one.

  24. Bithead says:

    Bit – once again your response is entirely tangential to anything that has been said.

    To which comments do you refer?

  25. rodney dill says:

    Doh, now I get it, I was wondering why this ad would lead to any claims of racism. the whole ‘sinister’ thing is just a red herring. The real reason is always at least one level removed from the forefront. Eneils hit it right on the head. The ad points out the Raines is a black person, which most people would not know and would probably would not necessarily assume. The cry of ‘racism’ is to distract people from linking Obama more directly with the failed Fannie Mae based on skin color.

    I think we’re gonna see a lot more claims of racism and sexism in this election, and as the 527’s warm up, we’ll see some ads the push the line (or blatantly ignore it) concerning racism/sexism.
    Its going to be messy.

  26. Steve Verdon says:

    Beat’cha Alex.

    Neener, neener, neener.

  27. Cernig says:

    If getting advice from an official at a troubled financial institution is a sign of bad judgment, then why is that two of McCain’s top advisors include John Thain, from Merrill Lynch, and Martin Feldstein, who serves on AIG’s board of directors?

  28. Cernig says:

    The finance, insurance and real estate sector is an equal opportunity giver. $22 million to McCain, $24 million to Obama – in both cases the largest corporate sector donations pool.

    http://www.opensecrets.org/pres08/index.php

    Regards, C

  29. Steve Verdon says:

    If getting advice from an official at a troubled financial institution is a sign of bad judgment, then why is that two of McCain’s top advisors include John Thain, from Merrill Lynch, and Martin Feldstein, who serves on AIG’s board of directors?

    Cernig,

    I believe that point has already been made except without the specifics.

  30. Eneils Bailey says:

    Cian,

    Obama, nor Raines wants to admit, nor deny they had a personal and professional relationship.

    Every criticism of BHO is considered racial disparity.

    He is now in a downward spiral, despite the efforts to prop him up him up in the MSM.

  31. Alex Knapp says:

    Steve,

    Beat’cha Alex.

    Neener, neener, neener.

    Curses! You must have posted that while I was typing!

    Anyways, as a general matter, it’s silly to cry racism, but worth pointing out that this is a reporter at Time calling racism, not the Obama campaign calling racism.

    Lots of people are going to be calling racism, sexism, ageism, POWism, footinmouthism, Christianism, incompetencism, etc. But if it’s not actually coming from the campaigns, and it’s not really part of the general discussion, is it really worth addressing ALL of them?

    Shouldn’t we instead be focusing on the real issues, namely that John McCain has become aggressively clueness on the financial market issue, while Barack Obama remains cautiously clueless?

  32. markm says:

    Ooph…two white guys and one black guy in this one:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aq7DGTggpx0

  33. Bithead says:

    If getting advice from an official at a troubled financial institution is a sign of bad judgment, then why is that two of McCain’s top advisors include John Thain, from Merrill Lynch, and Martin Feldstein, who serves on AIG’s board of directors?

    And did these falsify records so as to build up their own bonus and fill their own pocket, while causing a $10BUSD scandal?

    If not, your comparison falls a mite short.

  34. Jack Bauer says:

    Oh my. An ad with TWO black men is now considered “racist.”

    Anyone old enough to remember when TV ads with NO black men, were also considered racist.

    Talk about the TV spot calling the cast black. Oooops, guess I’m racist too!!

  35. Karl says:

    Marc Ambinder reports:

    I asked an Obama campaign aide last night what he thought. Wouldn’t want to go down that road without evidence, he said.

    Of course, they don’t have to go down that road, with useful idiots like Tumulty to do it form them.

  36. Michael says:

    If Raines did advise Obama then the McCain campaign has every right to place Raines and Obama side by side. However, if the connection is a lie, then the ad is racist.

    Holy crap, that’s quite a leap of reasoning.

    Shouldn’t we instead be focusing on the real issues, namely that John McCain has become aggressively clueness on the financial market issue, while Barack Obama remains cautiously clueless?

    Now there’s campaign slogans I want to see:
    Barack Obama: Cautiously Clueless and John McCain: Aggressively Clueless. Maybe even some bit with Palin saying “When you don’t have a clue, you can’t blink, because if you blink it’s like your eyes close and they open again really fast, and I don’t do that when I’m clueless”.
    Sarah Palin: Unblinkingly Clueless

    Oh my. An ad with TWO black men is now considered “racist.”

    Anyone old enough to remember when TV ads with NO black men, were also considered racist.

    Jack, it’s well established science that only between 0.7 and 1.7 black people in an ad is non-racist, while any number of white people greater 2.4 or less than 0.4 will also make an ad racist. The optimal values are 1.2 black people and 1.4 white people (unless there are Mexicans involved). Now since Obama is half black and half white, there were actually 1.5 black people to 1.5 white people in this ad, which while clearly sub-optimal, is still within the non-racist range.

  37. Steve Verdon says:

    Jack, it’s well established science that only between 0.7 and 1.7 black people in an ad is non-racist, while any number of white people greater 2.4 or less than 0.4 will also make an ad racist. The optimal values are 1.2 black people and 1.4 white people (unless there are Mexicans involved). Now since Obama is half black and half white, there were actually 1.5 black people to 1.5 white people in this ad, which while clearly sub-optimal, is still within the non-racist range.

    Michael wins the thread, IMO.

  38. cian says:

    Michael,

    Here’s my thinking on this (I admit, I’m not always logical, but I’m trying to work my way through this using what I have come to know of McCain’s campaign and the way they approach politics):

    If they really wanted to make the connection between Obama and the present financial crises, then they have it in his connection with Johnson. He headed up his VP pick team until he had to go. They did that. Good ad.

    The Raines connection is much more tenuous. So far all they’ve got is a Washington Post article which says someone on the Obama team contacted him looking for advise. Not great, but hey, the guys black like Obama! Here’s an idea- put them together and tag on a worried old lady at the end. Get it?

    Are you seriously telling me Rove’s guys don’t think like this?

    Reflect on their 2000 attack on McCain’s family and get back to me.

  39. Cernig says:

    Bithead, two words.

    Phil Gramm.

  40. Jack Bauer says:

    Michael wins the thread, IMO.
    Posted by Steve Verdon | September 19, 2008 | 04:13 pm | Permalink

    Yes, a very amusing continuation of my theme.

    Also

    If Raines did advise Obama then the McCain campaign has every right to place Raines and Obama side by side. However, if the connection is a lie, then the ad is racist.

    I assume that had the McCain camapaign portrayed Mr Raines in “white face” that would have satisfied all the racially concerned?

    cian — you really need to get back to the “issues.” And by the way, have you noticed the number of “white” folks appearing in Obama ads.

    So obvious that’s his not so subtle way of saying saying, “hey I’m half white too, crackers.”

    But at least his campaign has ever moved any Muslims out of camera shot. Thank goodness for small mercies!

  41. G.A.Phillips says:

    Are All Anti-Obama Ads Racist?

    No not any, but his spiritual mentor for the last 20 years is.

  42. Bithead says:

    Phil Gramm.

    FAIL.

    He has nothing to do with this, other than he seems to be a handy scapegoat.

    Nothing.

    Even if that were not the case, does that mean you no longer support Harry Reid, who voted for Graham’s bill, along with all but two other senators?

  43. al bee says:

    Anyone who didn’t think this was coming is living on another planet. Obama doesn’t need to make the call. He has the mass media ready to do it.