Obama and the Question of American Racism

Barack Obama’s skin color has moved to the foreground in his race against John McCain. Anti-black websites show greatly increased activity. People who up until now never saw themselves as racist are said to be seeking refuge with White Power groups out of indignation at the idea of a black president.

“How black can Mr. Obama be before he alienates white voters?” asked Marcus Mabry recently in the New York Times. And, to put it more cynically and precisely, “how black do the Republicans have to make him to win?” It was a calculated risk to openly declare what in American elections has always been treated with code words and insinuations as a highly toxic subject: “the race issue.” The question of whether a majority of Americans could imagine and accept a (half)black man in the White House is never answered honestly in surveys, only at the ballot box.

No one able to see could doubt that Barack Hussein Obama, whether he wants to or not, must deal with his skin color. The spectrum ranges from early doubts among African-Americans as to whether Obama was black enough, up to the persistent fear of assassination in a country that witnessed the murder of Martin Luther King 40 years ago and parts of which, at that time, still condoned the lynching of blacks. On the other side, American neo-Nazis and white supremacy groups strut about in increasing numbers since Obama’s nomination became a certainty.

No rumor can be bizarre enough

The Anti-Defamation League talks of an “explosion of hate,” particularly on thousands of websites. Former Ku-Klux-Klan leader Don Black boasts in interviews that visits to his internet forum “Stormfront” have increased from 2,000 to 40,000 a day. People who never saw themselves as racist are seeking company in white power groups because they are shocked at the possibility of a black president.

It goes without saying that neither John McCain nor his advisors would countenance racist undertones. The Republican candidate knows enough to distance himself from professional denouncers, those who depict Barack Hussein Obama as a monstrous cross between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden and was taught to subvert America while being educated in Indonesian Medrasa schools; that he is a self-hating Muslim in a Christian sheep’s clothing. Still, more than 10 percent of Americans believe, according to polls, that Obama is a Muslim. They’re probably the same people who still believe that Saddam Hussein has 9/11 on his conscience.

No rumor is too bizarre not to bloom in the bloggers’ rumor-garden. “Obama for president prepares the ground for David Duke for president,” believes David Duke, former KKK leader who ran for president in 1988 but didn’t even get one percent of the vote. One may shrug off Duke and his accomplices as loonies, but it takes only one dedicated person to make an attempt on his life.

Aggravation with Ralph Nader

But America’s left also plays variations on the theme, “Who’s Afraid of the Black Man?” Some accuse Obama of being an Uncle Tom or of opportunistically trying to be completely white. Of all people, it occurred to Ralph Nader, the once famous consumer advocate now hated by many as the man who cost Al Gore the 2000 election, to speak the unspeakable. There was nothing special about Obama other than his semi-black skin color, Nader said. He hadn’t heard a single accusation from him concerning the economic exploitation in the ghettos, the credit sharks and the asbestos and lead contamination. “Does he want to talk himself white? Is it because he doesn’t want to come across as a new Jesse Jackson, another threatening black politician?” Nader asked.

He further said that Obama toys with white guilt feelings, “and that doesn’t fit with ‘black is beautiful’.” Barack Obama reacted coolly to Nader’s attacks, saying Nader obviously wasn’t paying attention when Obama addressed all these problems, and that it was sad that such an accomplished man would make such statements just to get attention.

It’s true that Nader’s renewed presidential candidacy is being ignored and, unlike when he was the Green Party candidate in 2000, he’s not even joked about on late night talk shows. What’s also real is Nader’s outright impudence. Until his own pastor ambushed him with his hate-filled sermons, Barack Obama had only commented on his skin color in the same way he would casually mention the weather.

In order to distance himself from black leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, both of whom carried a lot of black pride and a great deal of ego into their campaigns, Obama avoided the old civil rights elites. He won the hearts of the young by expressing pride in a country that could produce a man like himself. Guilt might play a role among older people, but Obama’s movement is carried by pride in a new, more refined America.

How refined is once again a generational question. In an examination of race and age concerning the election, the Washington Post and ABC found that slightly less than half those interviewed felt racial relations were strained. Three out of ten admitted to having some racist prejudices. About the same number see John McCain’s age (71) as a serious problem.

When Pastor Wright’s tirades nearly toppled Obama’s candidacy, he met the deluge head on. On March 18th, he gave the most important speech of his career in Philadelphia. His race relations speech, “A More Perfect Union,” is destined, one way or another, to become part of the schools’ standard curricula. For decades, if ever, no politician has had the courage to lay open the black community’s resentment on the same level as they did the fears and antipathies of the white working class, both of which are rooted in legitimate concerns. Obama is the son of an African, married to an African-American who “carries the blood of both slaves and slave-holders.” His former pastor negated the “greatness and goodness of our nation” with his anachronistic hatred, thus offending both whites and blacks.

Only a man with ties to both sides of America’s black-white conflict is able to speak for both sides. Pastor Wright, now being revived by the Republican campaign, actually did Obama a favor. Obama knows exactly how it’s going to go from here: “They’ll try to make you frightened of me. He’s young and inexperienced, they’ll say. And he has a funny name. And did I mention that he’s black?” But haven’t we also mentioned that he has a white mother?

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