I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Awkward discussions of race and Obama

(updated below - updated again)

The luminous roundtable on Meet the Press yesterday had what appears from the transcript to be a rather awkward discussion of the role of race in Barack Obama's candidacy, with Howard Kurtz raising a question with which people like Mickey Kaus and Glenn Reynolds seem strangely obsessed: "Is [Obama] black enough to get support in the African-American community?" In the middle of that discussion, the Politico's Roger Simon said this:

If America actually nominates him and then votes for him for president and elects him, this will be a sign that we are a good and decent country that has healed its racial wounds. Now, Jesse Jackson had a same subtext, but Barack Obama is a much different politician than Jesse Jackson—much less threatening, much more appealing, and he actually has the ability to carry this off.

One could say, I suppose, that Jesse Jackson was more ideological and further to the left than Obama is -- though I think that is far from clear at this point. But even if one believes that, in what conceivable sense was Jesse Jackson "threatening" in a way that Obama is not? Jackson -- whatever else one might think of him -- is a Christian minister whose speeches almost invariably were grounded in religious concepts of faith, hope, charity, and aiding the impoverished and disadvantaged, and were free of racially inflammatory rhetoric, or any type of notably inflammatory rhetoric. Even for those who disagreed with Jackson politically, in what sense could he be viewed as "threatening"?

Anonymous Liberal wrote a post this weekend confessing that he has become smitten with Obama, and it is clear from his post that he has indeed succumbed to The Obama Spell. A.L. pronounces that he is "more convinced than ever that Obama is the strongest candidate in the field." After I read A.L.'s post, we exchanged a couple of e-mails about the extent to which Obama's race would be an impediment to his electoral prospects. A.L. thinks that the impediment would be slight, and even might have the opposite effect, on balance, of energizing white voters over the prospect of electing a black president (in his post, he cites Deval Patrick's resounding victory as Masschusettes Governor as evidence of this dynamic).

Possibly. But what seems clear, at the very least, is that Obama's candidacy is going to compel very candid discussions of race in venues which typically avoid such discussions desperately, opting instead to pretend that racial issues simply are non-existent. And that, in turn, is going to generate all kinds of revealing and (to put it generously) awkward remarks of the type made by Joe Biden and Roger Simon.

Look at how racially charged the "controversies" over Obama have already been -- not only the fictitious claims about his "madrassa" education, but also Tucker Carlson's insinuations over the past few days that Obama's church is too black to be Christian. And ABC News' Jake Tapper and Katie Hinman took Carlson's innuendo a step further yesterday by claiming that unnamed "critics" want to know if Obama's church "is too militant to be accepted by mainstream America" (h/t rk).

That was an insinuation that seemed to echo the very inflammatory claims in this editorial from Investors Business Daily, which asserted that
Obama's "religion has little to do with Islam and everything to do with a militantly Afrocentric movement that's no less troubling." The Editorial added that "Obama embraced more than Christ when he answered the altar call 20 years ago at the Trinity United Church of Christ in Southside Chicago" -- he embraced the "gospel of blackness and black power," a fact which "should give American voters pause." These accusations seem designed to suggest that perhaps Obama is not as "non-threatening" as Simon condescendingly claimed. Maybe he is a black militant.

It is always preferable to have views and sentiments -- even ugly ones -- aired out in the open rather than forcing them into hiding through suppression. And part of the reason people intently run away from discussions of race (just as they stay away from discussions of Middle East political disputes, specifically ones involving Israel) is because it is too easy to unwittingly run afoul of various unwritten speech rules, thereby triggering accusations of bigotry. That practice has the effect of keeping people silent, which in turn has the effect of reinforcing the appearance that nobody thinks about race (which is why nobody discusses it), which in turn prevents a constructive discussions of hidden and unwarranted premises.

For that reason, scouring people's comments about Obama and race, in search of evidence of even minor deviations from speech mores, is not really constructive. But it is notable just how many implicit assumptions about race lurk beneath these observations.

And it is even more notable how freely these patronizing sentiments are being expressed in the context of Obama's candidacy, often -- as in Biden's and Simon's case -- expressed as though they are compliments (he is so clean and articulate, he is so non-threatening, he seems like one of the moderate ones, he isn't really "militant"), because the speakers are not even consciously aware of the implications of those assumptions. It can be unpleasant to watch people struggle with these awkward discussions, but, on balance, anything which forces these issues more out into the open is probably a positive development.

UPDATE: Pam Spaulding has a characteristically nuanced and insightful discussion of some of the difficulties which people -- both white and black -- are encountering when discussing race in the context of Obama's candidacy.

UPDATE II: The Unapologetic Mexican takes issue with some of the claims in this post. I left a comment there in response (to which he then responded).

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