Wednesday, September 16, 2009

is opposition to obama racist?

Former President Jimmy Carter, who sometimes seems more lively now than he did as President, has opened a loud shouting match with his suggestion that right-wing opposition to Obama is tinged with racism. Maureen Dowd in the Times took a similar position, suggesting that an implicit comma came at the end of Joe Wilson's "You lie,"followed by the word "boy." Republicans have expressed outrage and called it a diversion from real issues. Is it?

It's hard to deny that there's some racism on the American right . . . and everywhere else on the political spectrum. Signs like "stay away from our children," which greeted Obama's speech to public school students, seem hard to explain on other grounds. And it may not be a coincidence that Wilson comes from South Carolina, a center of Southern resistance since before 1860.

Yet a few facts suggest that the charge may be overstated. Consider:

1. In the last election about 43 percent of whites voted for Obama, including over 40 percent of white males, the first time that had happened since 1976. (By way of contrast, under 5 percent of black voters voted for John McCain). It's possible that there are two groups of white voters, one more tolerant and the other less so; or that an even larger number of whites would have voted for (say) Hillary Clinton if she were running. And Obama's white numbers, while higher than previous Democrats at a national level, appear to have been somewhat lower in southern and border states. Still, it seems odd that a country plagued by racism would give record votes to an African-American or mixed-race candidates, or that racial attitudes--which tend to change very slowly--would shift in a matter of a few months.

2. The arguments made against Obama--that he is socialist, European in orientation, outside the cultural mainstream--are nasty and sometimes childish. But they are not appreciably different from those made against George McGovern, Michael Dukakis, or Bill and Hillary Clinton, and (if polls are accurate) have if anything been less successful against him than his predecessors. Even the caricatures of Obama--signs depicting him as Hitler, The Joker, etc.--don't really have much to do with racial stereotypes, but are consistent with previous efforts to depict liberals as weird, foreign, or dictatorial going back to the 1950s. They're also not that different from caricatures of Bush, Nixon, and other Republicans, but that's another story.

3. It's true that the effort to demonize Obama has been faster, cruder, and better organized than those against Clinton and other liberals. But this is part of a general decline in civility and an increase in the number of partisan outlets rather than being attributable to his race. The effort to demonize Bush was similarly more extreme than similar efforts against Reagan and other Republicans (Nixon was disliked by so many people, for so many reasons, that he merits his own category).

I must add a personal note. I spend a lot of my time doing research on antisemitism, especially the fascist kind, which was not merely verbal but direct, physical, and ultimately lethal in millions of cases. One of the saddest things to me is the way cavalier charges of antisemitism or "self-hatred" (the equivalent charge against Jews) have taken much of the sting out of antisemitism as a concept, so that people who really do hate Jews often escape our attention. I would hate to see the same thing happen to racism in America--and yet I fear that it has. If someone isn't a racist, they shouldn't be accused. Even if they are, the accusation of racism is more likely to lock them in to existing behavior patterns than change them for the better. There has to be a better way.

Addendum: Obama himself has given an interview in which he expresses doubt that all or most opposition to him is based on race. That won't necessarily stop others from claiming it, though. Stay tuned.


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