Friday, August 01, 2008

A Racist Turn in the McCain Campaign?

The Controversy. Last week, as part of the more intensified attacks that the McCain campaign has launched since Obama's wildly successful overseas trip, McCain campaign manager Rick Davis accused Obama of "playing the race card."

"Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck," said Rick Davis, in a statement issued from the McCain campaign. "It's divisive, negative, shameful and wrong."
What happened was that Obama made a routine reference to the likelihood of GOP racial smears, and warned an audience in Missouri that "what they're going to try to do is make you scared of me . . . You know, he doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills." In fact, the Republicans had been known for engaging in racial smear tactics going back to the Willie Horton ads during the 1988 presidential campaigns and continuing through the Jesse Helms "black hands" ads of 1990, and the Republican Party's portrayal of a white woman cooing for (African-American candidate) Harold Ford during the Tennessee Senate race in 2006.

It isn't like GOP smear artists have been inactive for the 2008 campaign either.

The most active of the Republican Party's smear artists has been Karl Rove who has pictured Obama in terms of being "lazy," "trash-talking," and playing "basketball at Harvard Yard." The only item in that list that is not a racial stereotype is Harvard Yard. GOP spokespeople also have sought to portray Obama as an "angry black nationalist" and have spread rumors about Michelle Obama being a "white hater." Moreover, white and African-American bloggers both believe that the attempt by Republicans to characterize Obama as presumptuous is an attempt to stereotype him in traditional terms as an "uppity" black man. Commentators on the left also view the clips of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears in McCain's "Celeb" ad as playing on white anxieties about black men and white women.

Thus, the Obama campaign, liberal and African-American bloggers, and several figures in the mainstream media believe that McCain is the one "playing the race card" here. Time magazine columnist and former McCain admirer Joe Klein was disgusted enough with McCain that he obliquely referred to McCain and the Republicans as "scum" in a blog posting today. Editors for the New York Times were less pungent, but made the same point when they referred to Davis' comments as "contemptible."

Has the McCain Campaign Taken a Racist Turn? White racism has always been much more complex than racial hostility or a belief that whites are "superior" to African-Americans. Racist statements contain three kinds of componens:

1. A Stereotype of African-Americans as ugly, lazy, irrational, over-sensitive, etc.;
2. An Expression of Contempt for an African-American or African-Americans based on racial stereotypes;
3. An Argument for the Domination of African-Americans by white people that, at least in principle, can extend back to justifying slavery.
Purposefulness. In this sense, a person making a statement would have to purposefully employ all three of these elements for the statement to be racist. Rick Davis' original statement about Obama was definitely purposeful. Obama had been talking about himself as a black person "not looking like" other presidential candidates or presidents for weeks if not months. Given that the McCain camp would have been aware of those statements, the decision to spring their complaint about Obama was purposeful in that they decided to attack Obama for "playing the race card" on Thursday as opposed to all the other days Obama had made similar statements. Bob Herbert observed that the McCain camp complained "with great glee bursting through their feigned outrage." Obama's statement gave them an opportunity they had been looking for.

Racial Stereotyping. But has the McCain campaign been relying on racial stereotypes? That appears to be the case. When Davis referred to Obama "playing the race card," David himself was playing on the white stereotype of African-Americans as "too sensitive" about race, "complaining all the time" about racial profiling or discrimination, and being unable to "take a joke." Like other racial sterotypes, the stereotype about African-Americans being "too sensitive" portrays African-Americans as not really "fitting in," not being "one of us," or as being strange or foreign. The African-American feminist bell hooks tells a story in "Killing Rage" about a white flight attendant who addressed one of her black friends as though the African-American woman didn't know English. Going along with that is the idea among whites (an idea I hear frequently from my students) that African-Americans need to "get over it" in relation to racism but aren't doing so.

The other racial stereotypes that the McCain camp has been relying on are black men having a special sexual interest in white women and Obama as an "uppity" black man. The stereotype of black men/white women appeared in the Celebrity ad which flashes pictures of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears as it criticizes Obama for being a vapid celebrity. Bob Herbert asks:

Gee, I wonder why, if you have a black man running for high public office — say, Barack Obama or Harold Ford — the opposition feels compelled to run low-life political ads featuring tacky, sexually provocative white women who have no connection whatsoever to the black male candidates.
Calling Obama "presumptuous" is more complex, but relies on racial stereotyping as well. In many ways, Republican criticisms of Obama for being presumptuous have the "Heads I Win/Tails You Lose quality that is common to Republican attacks. The GOP criticized Obama for being "presumptuous" because he did his overseas trip in such a big way--having successful meetings with a long succession of foreign leaders, sinking a three-point shot with troops, and holding a huge rally in Berlin. But if Obama had not made much of a mark, the same observers would have been just as happy to criticize him for "not being ready for prime time" or "not meeting the commander-in-chief test."

The point is to criticize Obama whatever he does.

But, as David Gergen observed yesterday on ABC's This Week, McCain's "Moses" ad lampooning Obama as "The One" and GOP attacks on Obama for being "presumptuous" all assert that Obama is an "uppity" black man who "doesn't know his place."
"There has been a very intentional effort to paint him as somebody outside the mainstream, other, 'he's not one of us,'" said Gergen, who has worked with White Houses, both Republican and Democrat, from Nixon to Clinton. "I think the McCain campaign has been scrupulous about not directly saying it, but it's the subtext of this campaign. Everybody knows that. There are certain kinds of signals. As a native of the south, I can tell you, when you see this Charlton Heston ad, 'The One,' that's code for, 'he's uppity, he ought to stay in his place.' Everybody gets that who is from a southern background. We all understand that. When McCain comes out and starts talking about affirmative action, 'I'm against quotas,' we get what that's about."

In this sense, McCain's messages have a surface message of saying that Obama is not ready to lead the country but a subtext that Obama is aiming for something that is not appropriate for a black man and that Obama doesn't know that his "place" as a black man in American society should be marginalized, at the bottom, in a band, or in jail. When the McCain campaign makes fun of Obama for being "presumptuous" or being a "celebrity," they're also saying that he's acting in ways that are inappropriate for a black man in American society.

The McCain campaign and Republican media figures like Karl Rove are relying on several kinds of racial stereotypes to make their criticisms of Barack Obama. Such reliance on stereotypes gives a powerful dimension of racism to the McCain campaign.

A Broad Circle of Contempt. In addition, Davis' statement expresses contempt for Obama. "It's divisive, negative, shameful and wrong" is very much an expression of contempt. Given that Davis' contempt is articulated in relation to the stereotype of African-Americans as "complaining too much" or "being too sensitive," it is not unreasonable to conclude that Davis is also implying that other African-Americans who "play the race card" by "unfairly" complaining about racism are also "divisive, negative, shameful, and wrong." Because he is relying on a stereotype of Obama as an African-American, Rick Davis is also tarring African-Americans as a group. The New York Times also notices that Davis' formulation concerning dealing the race card "from the bottom of the deck" was also used in relation to the O. J. Simpson trial which is still a hot-button issue among whites.
It also — and we wish this were coincidence, but we doubt it — conjurs up another loaded racial image. The phrase dealing the race card “from the bottom of the deck” entered the national lexicon during the O.J. Simpson saga. Robert Shapiro, one of Mr. Simpson’s lawyers, famously declared of himself, Johnny Cochran and the rest of the Simpson defense team, “Not only did we play the race card, we dealt it from the bottom of the deck.”
In fact, all of the stereotypes employed by the McCain campaign and Republicans express contempt for black people in general, especially for black men. For example, the McCain campaign's juxtaposing of Obama against images of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton relies on the stereotypical idea of black sexual interest in white women as "unnatural" because black men are "less than fully human." In this context, the element of contempt is in the assumption that black men aren't really human.

When McCain and the Republicans who criticize Obama for being "presumptuous"or "uppity," they are expressing a similar kind of contempt. The stereotypical criticism of blacks as "uppity" relies on the assumption that blacks should "naturally" be at the bottom of society however one characterizes "the bottom." Indeed, like most stereotypes, the idea of blacks as "uppity" is ultimately goes back to slavery and is rooted in the conviction that blacks should really be slaves. In that context, it would be "arrogant," "presumptuous," or otherwise "unnatural" for a black person like Obama to assume that he could be president--i. e., be the man.

In this sense, the racial stereotypes employed by the McCain campaign are racist because they express enormous contempt for African-Americans as human beings.

Domination. Finally, the McCain campaign wants to dominate the Obama campaign in that they are seeking to silence the Obama campaign on issues of race. What McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt has to say is interesting in this regard:
"McCain aides say their goal is to pre-empt what they believe is Obama's effort to paint any conventional campaign attacks as race-based. Obama’s aim, in the view of the McCain camp: ‘to delegitimize any line of attack against him,’ said McCain aide Steve Schmidt… ‘I don't [care] whether it helps or hurts us,’ Schmidt said. ‘A lie unresponded to becomes the truth.’
If taken at face value, this is a ridiculous statement. The Obama camp hasn't criticized any of McCain's attacks as being racially motivated even though the McCain campaign has launched a dizzying array of attacks on Obama's Iraq policy proposals, inexperience, flip-flopping, rigidity, celebrity status, "presumptuousness," and supposed willingness to "lose the war to win the election. Nor has the Obama camp shown any inclination to criticize McCain on racial or other ground. In fact, most Obama ads don't even mention McCain.

So what is the McCain camp worried about?

The key word is "pre-empt." The leaders of the McCain campaign does not want the Obama to be able to criticize McCain attacks as "racially-tinged" in the future. So they're attacking Obama for playing the "race card" now with the expectation that the "controversy" will scare off Obama from criticizing the "racially-tinged" attacks that the McCain people expect to make.

Here, however, there is reason to question whether the McCain campaign and Republicans are trying to establish any form of "racial domination" over the Obama campaign. Republican presidential campaigns have been known for hitting Democratic presidential candidates with a barrage of innuendo, stereotyping, and ridicule since 1988 and the objective has always been for the Republican presidential candidate to keep the Democratic presidential candidate on the defensive. In other words, the Republican presidential campaign organizations can be seen as striving to dominate the Obama campaign in the same way they sought to dominate the Dukakis, Clinton, Gore, and Kerry campaigns.

However, it is also possible to see the efforts of the McCain campaign and Republicans to attach racial stereotypes to Obama as raising the specter of a non-white, racial "outsider" like Obama taking over the summit of American society as something "unnatural," "unseemly," and "wrong" because it inverts the "natural order" of American society. In this sense, the McCain campaign's use of racial stereotyping could be seen as an appeal to whites to maintain the "natural" racial order of white domination.

At this point, I believe that the former option is more correct. Despite the McCain/Republican use of racial stereotypes, I have yet to see any evidence that the Republicans have directly or indirectly introduced "maintaining the natural racial order" as a campaign theme. Until they do so, it is impossible to view them in terms of pursuing racial domination.

Conclusion. Recent McCain ads and McCain strategist Rick Davis' comments have been racist because they employed racial stereotypes in a way that conveyed contempt for Barack Obama as an African-American. But they do not appear (at least at present) as seeking to establish or protect a relationship of racial domination. Thus, the racism has limits and I wouldn't claim that recent Republican attacks have been racist in the full sense of the word.

Does that make Rick Davis or John McCain a racist? Not necessarily. They may be worse. White racism is bad enough but there are many cases in which a person becomes a racist out of ignorance, family socialization, or some sort of cultural imperative. Such people are not exactly innocent, but they are not nearly as bad as those who seek to manipulate the racism in American society for financial or political gain. Given that the McCain campaign has embarked on an effort to manipulate the racism in American society for their political benefit, they strike me as being significantly more immoral than most racists.

And that's why it was appropriate for the New York Times to refer to what the McCain campaign is doing as "contemptible."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It should come as no surprise that republicans use this type of tactic. It has worked well for them since 1968. In the aftermath of Lee Atwater and his demented proteges, (most vile being Karl Rove)this is what we get. They know that whites harbor underlying fears, racism, etc and they have perfected the art of exploiting those fears.
What a 'brave new world.'