Talking heads all over cable have spent a week parsing out the question of whether racism is having an undue influence on political discourse in this country. Former President Jimmy Carter has weighed in, attributing to racism an “overwhelming portion” of the ugliness directed of late at President Barack Obama — who, for his own part, has offered his predecessor a gentle rebuke, insisting that the heated arguments are really all about policy. This morning’s Washington Post offered parallel views of people in two South Carolina congressional districts; one represented by “You Lie!” shouter Joe Wilson, and the other, right next door, by the man most responsible for bringing congressional disapproval of that outburst to a vote, Majority Whip James Clyburn. Each appears to fairly represent the views of his constituents. Who’s right?
In my own irenic way, I’d like to suggest that everyone is right, sort of. Let me explain. No, is too much. Let me sum up:
I think Carter is right that there is a strong racial undercurrent to much of the extreme rhetoric that has surfaced in recent weeks; so much so that some of it has become overt and personal in the way Obama has been relentlessly attacked by his opponents. And I think Obama is right that it is policy disagreement, not this undercurrent, which drives the debate. What I suggest is happening is as follows: those who oppose Obama on policy, and would have opposed any Democrat who seemed poised to accomplish the things he has set out as goals, are not necessarily racist, and are not motivated by racism. But they know that one way to amplify the negative image of any politician is to find ways to emphasize the other-ness of that person, and they know how to stir up the reservoir of unacknowledged fear, suspicion and prejudice which many Americans have not as yet overcome. So race is not a cause, but it is a means, and to the extent that spokespersons and leaders use these means, the dynamic of racist fear grows. But here’s my point, put another way.
Suppose Hillary Clinton had won the primary and the election, and were now in the process of seeking to accomplish a very similar agenda to that of this president. The same cynical opponents who use buzzwords and code words to stir up feelings of racial discomfort, with the sort of effect that now drives the airtime of the talking heads, would have found a different set buzzwords and code words to make personal attacks on the character and motivations of the first female president, for the purpose of derailing this same agenda. We’d be hearing a lot of words like “feminazis” and who knows what else, and sinister-looking pictures of Clinton and Pelosi would figure heavily in anti-healthcare (or anti-whatever) demonstrations. And the talking heads would be asking each other the same anxious questions about resurgent sexism in this country, as they now do about race.
So Obama is right. It is policy, not race, that drives the debate. But Carter is also right. Deep-seated, longstanding cultural fears are being exploited to fuel the engine.