Fighting Words

From the N-Word to Code Words

The evolution of the race card in American politics.

Barack Obama

At the beginning of the summer, my conservative friend David Frum made a joking remark that stayed with me. The evolution of right-wing abuse of President Barack Obama, he said, was not unlike the evolution of American pornography. It took a long time for the appearance of things like bare breasts and pubic hair to occur, but once those thresholds had been crossed, it didn’t take long for the most lurid things to be freely depicted and for the competition for obscenity to become ever more extreme. “Everybody’s afraid now of being outdone from the right,” he told me. “So when somebody eventually comes out and calls Obama an ‘Afro-Nazi,’ it will go mainstream quite fast.”

High marks for prescience. For Dinesh D’Souza to label Obama the equivalent of a Kenyan Mau Mau was one thing, but for former Speaker Newt Gingrich to endorse the analysis with such dispatch was quite another. What will they do for an encore?

The “race-card” game, when I was young, was a simple one. It used to be George Wallace and Orval Faubus shouting about “n_____s.” As the 1960s advanced, this became less respectable and, with the defection of white Southerners to the Republican Party, more a matter of codes and signals. Nixon’s “Southern strategy” was a relatively subtle example; George Bush Sr.’s use of the Willie Horton subliminal ad a rather crude one. I would say that this began to change with Bill Clinton, the first politician to play the card twice.

While running poorly and beset by sex scandals in New Hampshire in 1992, he left the campaign trail and returned to Arkansas to supervise the execution of a mentally disabled black man named Ricky Ray Rector, a prisoner so lobotomized by his own attempted suicide that when the executioners came to his cell, he left part of his “last meal” behind “for later.” Try imagining what would have been said about a Southern Republican governor who did the same thing during a tight election. But then, try imagining a Southern Republican president, impeached for perjury and obstruction, rejoicing in the defense that he was America’s first black chief executive.

The man who did actually become the first black president has been unusually forbearing when it comes to the race card, and he was originally very fortunate in those who played it against him. As Obama asks in his memoirs, who would have predicted that the Republicans in Illinois would have run a black man against him in the Illinois Senate race—an out-and-out extremist named Alan Keyes, who denounced him for not being the descendant of slaves and therefore not “truly” black! When the terrain shifted, and it was a question of Obama’s being too much of an African-American, or in some critiques too likely to be a Muslim, it was originally from Hillary Clinton’s camp that most of the innuendoes came. (“Not as far as I know,” was her tooth-gritted reply to the question about whether her rival was a Muslim.) Long before Glenn Beck had accused the president of being motivated by hatred for white people, the Hillary camp had been circulating the rumor that Michelle Obama was on tape with a speech denouncing “whitey.” It’s true that Rahm Emanuel later vetoed the appointment of her chief propagandist Sidney Blumenthal to a job at the State Department, but by that time Obama had rewarded one of his chief taunters with the job of secretary of state.

The vagaries of the race card have, if anything, only increased since then. A huge number of liberals have already decided that in some way Muslims constitute a race of their own, or at any rate that criticism of their religion can be construed as “racist.” (The fact that the Quran contains many racist observations about Jews will mean that this card can and will be used to turn an almost infinite number of tricks. Still, I predict that liberals will regret handing Muslims such a handy alibi for any criticism of their faith.) And if there is anywhere in particular where Obama could have learned the dangers of the same card, it could well be—as described in David Remnick’s biography—from his father’s bitter experience of Luo-Kikuyu tribal fratricide in Kenya, which led to the murder of the country’s most promising politician, Tom Mboya, at the dawn of independence. Aside from a minor and avoidable gaffe on the occasion when Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was clumsily arrested at his own front door in Cambridge, Mass., Obama has done little or nothing to raise the racial temperature and has endured a pelting of vulgar defamation with remarkable patience.

It would be or ought to be dangerous if we ever get to the point where the charge of racism becomes so overused and hackneyed as to be meaningless. Such a term ought to retain its potency as a weapon of shame and disapproval. Yet there are times, I must confess, that I almost wouldn’t miss it. Last week in Washington, D.C., we saw the culmination of a long and dire campaign to sabotage the reform of the city’s schools. For years now, since the time of the disgraceful Marion Barry, a rumor has been circulated in the black wards of the capital that there is a thing called “The Plan.” This sinister scheme involves the deliberate erosion of black neighborhoods and communities in the interests of a white/Hispanic ascendancy. That would make its supposed leader a Korean-American named Michelle Rhee who as the city’s chancellor of public schools was willing to close hopeless schools and to fire illiterate and unqualified teachers. Despite the support of the Obama administration, the reform and the reformers have now been voted down. In a succession of articles, the Washington Post’s leading black columnist, Colbert I. King, more or less explicitly head-counted Mayor Adrian Fenty’s nonblack appointments and encouraged citizens to think with their epidermis. So, in voting for the re-election of a black mayor and for the approved program of a black president, I can be held to have cast a “white” vote and to have played a race card without even knowing it. It is not only on the right that the auction of demagogy is operating, and the bids are headed downward.

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