Defining ‘Racism’ Down

I’ve noted for months the rise of a meme, first in the Democratic primaries then, and especially, in the general election campaign that the only thing that could possibly keep Barack Obama from winning is racism.  Given that he appears to be coasting to victory, drawing in staggering levels of contributions and spending massive sums to advertise in states he can’t possibly win just for the sake of running up the score and creating the illusion of a “mandate,” one would think that talk would go away.

It hasn’t.  Indeed, we continue to see it even in the most respectable corners of the center-left.  Josh Marshall, for example, writes,

Yes, it looks good for the Democrats. But you need to play close attention to the McCain campaign’s final weeks’ strategy under and just above the radar. McCain’s final strategy relies on two pillars. The first is aggressively playing to voters’ fears of electing a black president. Make no mistake: not just his campaign in a general sense, but McCain himself and his top handful of advisers, are banking on the residual racism in a changing America to get them over the finish line. The second is an aggressive use of innuendo to convince casual voters that Obama is in league with Islamic terrorists bent on killing Americans.

[…]

Stripped down to its components McCain’s message to voters is this: “Don’t forget. He’s definitely black. And he may be a terrorist.” That’s the message. The nuts and bolts is a concerted effort to keep Democrats from voting — through intimidation, by striking new voters from the rolls, which is going to happen to lots of them, clogging polling stations to create delays that keep late day (predominantly) Obama voters from voting altogether. Smears in the air and voter suppression on the ground.

This is nonsense.  Republicans have been using the Patriotism card against Democrats in every presidential election in my lifetime.  Nixon did it. Reagan did it.  Bush 41 did it.  Dole did it.  Bush 43 did it.  (I don’t know whether Ford did it; if he didn’t, he should have, considering the narrowness of his loss.)  Given that the opponents in each case were Caucasian, it’s hard to see how the tactic is racist.  Using a tried-and-true tactic against a biracial candidate doesn’t magically make it racist.

Nor, incidentally, is every mention of race racist.  Lots of commentators on the left are upset that some conservatives have presumed that one reason Colin Powell endorsed Obama yesterday are because they’re both black.   Presuming this is “racist” when Pat Buchanan, or even Rush Limbaugh, makes mention of it is somewhat understandable given past controversies.  But George Will?   During a very pleasant conversation about the endorsement on “This Week,” he said, “Barack Obama gets two votes because he’s black for every one he loses because he’s black because so much of this country is so eager, a, to feel good about itself by doing this, but more than that to put paid to the whole Al Sharpton/Jesse Jackson game of political rhetoric.”

Now, I don’t know whether the observation is true as a statistical matter. But it’s hardly “racist.”

Nor is the insinuation that race was one factor among many in Powell’s endorsement. Indeed, Powell said as much.

MR. BROKAW: And you are fully aware that there will be some–how many, no one can say for sure–but there will be some who will say this is an African-American, distinguished American, supporting another African-American because of race.

GEN. POWELL: If I had only had that in mind, I could have done this six, eight, 10 months ago. I really have been going back and forth between somebody I have the highest respect and regard for, John McCain, and somebody I was getting to know, Barack Obama. And it was only in the last couple of months that I settled on this. And I can’t deny that it will be a historic event for an African-American to become president. And should that happen, all Americans should be proud–not just African-Americans, but all Americans–that we have reached this point in our national history where such a thing could happen. It will also not only electrify our country, I think it’ll electrify the world.

Which, by the way, is essentially what Will was saying.

Limbaugh’s line, “I am now researching his past endorsements to see if I can find all the inexperienced, very liberal, white candidates he has endorsed,” is amusing and has more than a grain of truth. The problem with it is that Obama is sui generis. While he’s certainly more liberal than even Powell would normally prefer as president — Powell said so during the MTP appearance — he’s undeniably charismatic, calm, and possessed of enormous political skills. And McCain has certainly given Rockefeller Republicans plenty of reason to jump off the bandwagon.

So, dismissing Powell’s endorsement as being entirely about race is silly. To say that it’s one factor among many, though, is to state the obvious.

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. Alexander Klingman says:

    I’d feel better about this analysis if I hadn’t read the reactions to Powell’s endorsement:

    http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2008_10/015268.php

  2. Mike P says:

    James,
    No, calling into question the patriotism of Democrats isn’t inherently racist (I find it more than a bit distasteful, but that’s another story), nor is every mention of race itself a racist act, but what I believe Josh is getting at is that Obama is already being cast (rather unfairly) as the mysterious “other”; some alien being who is just not like you and who is also possibly a terrorist (!) or a Muslim (God forbid!).

    What I think Josh means is that implying that an African-American, especially the first one to ever be nominated for president, is not patriotic wounds Obama more because it gives credence to some of the wild “he’s an outsider” theories that people have about him.

    So, it probably make sense that Obama would be attacked in this manner, but there is a subtext here which is kind of interesting.

    In any case, you can’t honestly say that folks haven’t been using the fact that he’s black or the fact that his background is different against him. The flier from the Republican Party in Sacramento that was supposed to be a food stamp on which Obama is surrounded by fried chicken and watermelon, the continued peddling of the false accusation that Obama is a Muslim (which Colin Powell cut up nicely yesterday), etc.

  3. sam says:

    I think the argument for the meme goes something like this: The McCain campaign is attempting to convince voters that Obama is not “one of us,” that he is some Other (pals around with terrorists, etc.). Unspoken in this attempt to characterize Obama as being this “Other” is that he is black.

    That’s the argument. Whether it’s accurate or not as far as the “he’s black” subtext goes depends on the point of view of the person reading it. (I do think that the rehtoric goes beyond simply saying Obama’s unpatriotic). While I’m pretty sure about the “Obama’s not one of us” thrust of a lot of what’s coming out of the McCain campaign, I myself do not see the “and he’s black” thing. It might be that in the minds of certain voters, he’s not one of us leads to the color of his skin, but I don’t think that’s part of the McCain strategy.

  4. Ben says:

    To say that it’s one factor among many, though, is to state the obvious.

    But is that what’s happening? If you’re seeing a plethora of columns and blog posts out there, making nuanced observations about the role race played in Powell’s endorsement, then by all means, link away.

    So I think your point, on its own, is correct, but that’s not really how it’s playing out in the real world, which is what people are reacting to.

  5. Bithead says:

    So, dismissing Powell’s endorsement as being entirely about race is silly. To say that it’s one factor among many, though, is to state the obvious.

    Agreed, James.

    Yet…

    The next question down that line, seems to me equally obvious; Would the other issues Powell claims as his motivation, be enough to push him in this direction without the race issue being there?

    I wonder, very little.

    I wonder more, what kind of position Powell would have in a posulated Obama administration, and if such promises didn’t ‘encourage him’ to move toward this endorsement.

  6. G.A.Phillips says:

    And there was once day when I was hoping Gen.Powell would be our second black President, you live and you learn.

  7. G.A.Phillips says:

    Oh crap I forgot a a here comes the denunciations.

  8. The constant accusations of racism aren’t going to go away just because Senator Obama becomes president. It helps those throwing it about feel better about themselves and makes it easier to identify the Goldsteinism they see in everyone opposed to them.

  9. Eneils Bailey says:

    Josh Marshall, for example, writes,

    TaDa..TaDa…TaDa..

    This is nonsense.

    Republicans have been using the Patriotism card against Democrats in every presidential election in my lifetime. Nixon did it. Reagan did it. Bush 41 did it. Dole did it. Bush 43 did it.

    You have read too many editions of the WaPo and NYT, lived in and around Washington too long, and can’t find one quote from these people to support your allegations.

  10. James Joyner says:

    You have read too many editions of the WaPo and NYT, lived in and around Washington too long, and can’t find one quote from these people to support your allegations.

    Is it your contention that Republicans haven’t used patriotism as a selling point going back to at least Nixon? Why all the flap about flag burning or the pledge of allegiance or family values? Why is Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” always being played?

  11. Eneils Bailey says:

    Is it your contention that Republicans haven’t used patriotism as a selling point going back to at least Nixon? Why all the flap about flag burning or the pledge of allegiance or family values? Why is Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” always being played

    Mr. Joyner,
    Sure enough, the Republicans have done these things, and in doing so, they did not declare that anyone who does not is unpatriotic.

  12. James Joyner says:

    Sure enough, the Republicans have done these things, and in doing so, they did not declare that anyone who does not is unpatriotic.

    No one ever comes right out and says the other guy isn’t patriotic. They do, however, strongly suggest that they don’t love America or Jesus quite as much as they should.

  13. Anderson says:

    Defining ‘Racisim’ Down

    I think that before we can define “racisim” down, we would first have to define “racisim,” period.

    (152,000 hits on Google, though. Google — teh dictionery uf teh futture.)

  14. Eneils Bailey says:

    No one ever comes right out and says the other guy isn’t patriotic. They do, however, strongly suggest that they don’t love America or Jesus quite as much as they should.

    Mr. Joyner,
    You are dancing, what kind of music do you like?

  15. Eneils Bailey says:

    Mr Joyner,
    Several comments ago, you made the following accusation:

    Republicans have been using the Patriotism card against Democrats in every presidential election in my lifetime. Nixon did it. Reagan did it. Bush 41 did it. Dole did it. Bush 43 did it.

    I asked that you substantiate those accusations.

    You never did that.

    All you did was supply your personal interpretations of the current political discourse.

    I do that all the time without any fact to back me up.

  16. bains says:

    [Obama’s]undeniably charismatic, calm, and possessed of enormous political skills.

    Yes, seemingly, and kind of hard to tell when the media has been avoiding a honest investigation in this last area.

    That said, Powell’s endorsement will likely only have effects within those already leaning Obama. At this point (two weeks out), the true undecideds probably shouldn’t be voting, as their vote will be cast on criterion as stringent as is their favorite color the same as mine.

  17. bains says:

    And James, as Jennifer Rubin reminds us, here is fellow Democrat Ed Rendell on Obama’s political acumen:

    “With people who have a lot of gifts, it’s hard for people to identify with them,” the governor said. “Barack Obama is handsome. He’s incredibly bright. He’s incredibly well spoken, and he’s incredibly successful — not exactly the easiest guy in the world to identify with.”
    […]
    “He is a little like Adlai Stevenson,” Rendell mused. “You ask him a question, and he gives you a six-minute answer. And the six-minute answer is smart as all get out. It’s intellectual. It’s well framed. It takes care of all the contingencies. But it’s a lousy soundbite.”

    If only Obama had the legislative record that Stevenson had.

    Aah, let us belittle Palin’s experience instead.

  18. just me says:

    I think the problem this cycle for the GOP is that they will be accused of racism no matter what they say. And sometimes it really is about race and not racism.

    The next question down that line, seems to me equally obvious; Would the other issues Powell claims as his motivation, be enough to push him in this direction without the race issue being there?

    First of all I believe Powell has always been on the liberal end of the GOP, and I always thought he pretty much left the party unofficially when he resigned as Secretary of State.

    I do wonder if Powell would have endorsed a white democratic candidate or Hillary has she won. So while I am not so sure Powell wouldn’t be voting democrat this go around, I do wonder if the endorsement in and of itself may not have been about race.

    Who knowsQ