Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Everything Is Racist

In an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, David Shipler gives America a delightful preview of what the coming general presidential campaign is going to look like - as well as just how an Obama presidency will end up stifling free speech.

Whether by calculation or coincidence, Hillary Clinton and Republicans who have attacked Barack Obama for elitism have struck a chord in a long-standing symphony of racial codes. It is a rebuke that gets magnified by historic beliefs about what blacks are and what they have no right to be.

Clinton is no racist, and Obama has made some real missteps, including his remark last week that "bitter" small-town Americans facing economic hardship and government indifference "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them." Perhaps he was being more sociological than political, and more sympathetic than condescending. But when his opponents branded him an elitist and an outsider, his race made it easier to drive a wedge between him and the white, rural voters he has courted. As an African American, he was supposedly looking down from a place he didn't belong and looking in from a distance he could not cross.

This could not happen as dramatically were it not for embedded racial attitudes. "Elitist" is another word for "arrogant," which is another word for "uppity," that old calumny applied to blacks who stood up for themselves.

At the bottom of the American psyche, race is still about power, and blacks who move up risk triggering discomfort among some whites. I've met black men who, when stopped by white cops at night, think the best protection is to act dumb and deferential.

Furthermore, casting Obama as "out of touch" plays harmoniously with the traditional notion of blacks as "others" at the edge of the mainstream, separate from the whole.

So elitist joins the long list of words that are not permitted when talking about Mr. Obama. The fact that detractors of the previous democrat candidate, John Kerry, also called him elitist, notwithstanding. You see Obama is black, and thus, any criticism directed his way is, ipso facto, racist, regardless of whether that criticism has been used equally against people of other races.

Don't believe it? Consider the rest of Mr. Shipler's analysis:

So although Obama's brilliance defies the stubborn stereotype of African Americans as unintelligent, there is a companion to that image -- doubts about blacks' true capabilities -- that may heighten concerns about his inexperience. Through the racial lens, a defect can be enlarged into a disability. He is "not ready," a phrase employed often when blacks are up for promotion.

When Clinton mocked Obama for the supposed emptiness of his eloquence, the chiding had a faint historical echo from Thomas Jefferson's musings in "Notes on the State of Virginia" that "in music they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time," but "one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid."

This slander that blacks had more show than substance was handed down through later generations as a body-mind dichotomy, with physical and mental prowess as opposites. Overt "compliments" -- they've got rhythm, they can dance, they can jump -- were paired with the silent assumption of inferior intellect.

So, pointing out that Obama lacks national and foreign policy experience (which, as a first term US Senator, he simply, factually does - which may or may not be a bad thing) is now to utter a racist expletive. To accuse him of polished, but empty rhetoric - a criticism made against almost every politician - is now to send him to the back of the bus.

When Geraldine Ferraro, long an honored democrat and the first woman to run for vice president, simply pointed out that Obama had an advantage in part because he was black - an entirely reasonable analysis, based on primary voting trends - she was instantly branded a racist, insulted, mocked and made persona non grata within her party. At the same time, Obama makes excuses and stands behind his avowedly white-hating pastor, the Rev. Wright. Now we see Obama supporters neatly framing the stage to suggest that any criticism of their great leader is racist and not permitted. How will they act is Obama actually makes it to the White House?

Americans have long taken the right to criticize their elected leaders for granted. If Obama's supporters have their way, that right will be one of the first to fall by the wayside the day Obama is sworn in.

It's enough to make one want to vote for John McCain.


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