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Race is on my mind

by Raphael J. Sonenshein

July 30, 2008 | 7:56 pm

I've got race on my mind today. Here we have the possibility of the first African-American president in history, and it's only a matter of time before the racial attacks kick in.

The McCain campaign is struggling on the issues, and it's only going to get worse as the public gets clued in to where McCain stands on social security, abortion, and other issues.

The "tough guys" in Karl Rove's circle have been brought in to recraft the message. At the end of the day, it'll be patriotism and race, the two standards in the Republican playbook.

I'm observing some straws in the wind, and I'll tell you what I see, in no particular order.
  • John McCain just recently reversed course in order to support a voter measure in Arizona to ban affirmative action. That will allow him to move to the right on this issue. Obama will be asked again and again, "Now that you are the presidential nominee, do we still need affirmative action?" It would have been harder to do that if McCain had not been willing to abandon his own position on the issue.
  • Fox News some weeks ago "inadvertently" ran a screen crawl under Michelle Obama's picture referring to her as his "baby momma." This is slang for a woman who has a man's child without being married to him. Fairly sickening, wouldn't you say? This little slur sets up the next one...
  • Just yesterday, the McCain campaign aired a "funny" ad showing Obama as a celebrity, with a quick shot of two young white women, Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. Linking a black male candidate with young white women is a staple of the playbook, and the "call me" ad used against Harold Ford, Jr. in Tennessee several years ago showed the way. It doesn't work if everybody knows Obama has a solid, happy relationship with his wife and daughters. Keep attacking Michelle, though, and the Obama campaign will feel nervous about getting her out there.
  • The continuing Republican push, accepted without question by the campaign media, that Obama is "presumptuous" by acting too presidential fits in the frame of the young black man getting ahead of himself. (Don't forget that only a couple of weeks ago, the supposed problem with Obama was that he was not presidential enough. Whatever...)
I think the Republicans are feeling their way right now to find a comfortable niche to exploit race. They know that African Americans are registering to vote in large numbers, and don't want to overtly push that trend even farther. They don't want to alienate moderate white voters. They are, I think, moving toward a sort of cultural slur that suggests that Obama is a slick black man, who thinks he is "better than us" because he's so well educated and articulate. They were, I think, hoping that he would be an angry black man who hates whites, but the problem is that Obama is genial, thoughtful, and coalition-oriented. And given McCain's anger management problem, that is hardly a place worth going.

Things like this are awfully hard to counter. For one thing, much of the appeal is subliminal. If a black candidate complains about race, he or she elevates race as an issue, and in the bargain looks like a complainer. Or looks angry. None of the moves are obvious enough to comprise "teachable moments" about racism.


It may seem counter-intuitive, but a light-hearted response to these racialized things may actually be the best and most effective response, because it takes the sting out of them.

A black candidate is not without resources in this battle.

One is that many white voters will not respond to these appeals. Jewish voters, for instance, have long stood out for their support of black mayoral candidates when other whites were responding to racial appeals.

But the real defense is a good offense on the issues. In a time of economic turmoil, if Obama can really dig down and offer a compelling economic message to working Americans, he may well be able to counter the undertow of old racial attitudes. It sounds old-fashioned, but a real debate on the issues will be the best medicine for this race stuff. Not a high toned, elevated policy debate, but a down-to-earth, here's-how-I'm-going-to-make-your-life-better case that Democrats have failed to make election after election.

This time, they have no choice.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Raphael J. Sonenshein (born 1949 in Nutley, New Jersey) was a political science professor at California State University, Fullerton. He is also served as chairman of the...

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