Posted by: Randy Allgaier | August 3, 2008

McCain campaign’s racism

This past week Senator John McCain took great umbrage with what he perceived as Senator Obama injecting race into the Presidential race. I beg to differ.

Let’s take a look at Senator Obama’s comment. “Nobody really thinks that Bush or McCain had a real answer for the challenges we face, so what they’re going to try to do is make you scared of me,” he told a crowd in Springfield, Missouri. “You know, he’s not patriotic enough. He’s got a funny name. He doesn’t look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills.” My question is what is wrong with speaking the truth?

Let’s just do a quick grammar check here- shall we. He said “they’re going to try…” He didn’t say “they have tried…” I know that’s parsing words and tenses, but when you make an accusation, you should be able to hold it up to simple scrutiny. But even if Obama had accused Senator McCain’s campaign of injecting race into the campaign he would be completely justified.
But Senator Obama was gracious in an interview he gave to NPR late in the week. “What I said in front of a 98 percent conservative, rural, white audience in Missouri is nothing that I haven’t said before, which is, I don’t come out of central casting when it comes to what presidential candidates typically look like, and it doesn’t just have to do with race. It has to do with my name. It has to do with my biography and my background.”

Senator Obama should have called out the McCain campaign on the racism that is a craftily constructed undercurrent in every charge they level against Senator Obama. Bob Herbert did so brilliantly in his August 2nd New York Times editorial:

“Gee, I wonder why, if you have a black man running for high public office — say, Barack Obama or Harold Ford — the opposition feels compelled to run low-life political ads featuring tacky, sexually provocative white women who have no connection whatsoever to the black male candidates.

Spare me any more drivel about the high-mindedness of John McCain. You knew something was up back in March when, in his first ad of the general campaign, Mr. McCain had himself touted as “the American president Americans have been waiting for.”

“There was nothing subtle about that attempt to position Senator Obama as the Other, a candidate who might technically be American but who remained in some sense foreign, not sufficiently patriotic and certainly not one of us — the “us” being the genuine red-white-and-blue Americans who the ad was aimed at.”

Herbert continues, “Now from the hapless but increasingly venomous McCain campaign, comes the slimy Britney Spears and Paris Hilton ad. The two highly sexualized women (both notorious for displaying themselves to the paparazzi while not wearing underwear) are shown briefly and incongruously at the beginning of a commercial critical of Mr. Obama.”

“The Republican National Committee targeted Harold Ford with a similarly disgusting ad in 2006 when Mr. Ford, then a congressman, was running a strong race for a U.S. Senate seat in Tennessee. The ad, which the committee described as a parody, showed a scantily clad woman whispering, ‘Harold, call me.'”
Both ads were foul, poisonous and emanated from the upper reaches of the Republican Party. (What a surprise.) Both were designed to exploit the hostility, anxiety and resentment of the many white Americans who are still freakishly hung up on the idea of black men rising above their station and becoming sexually involved with white women.

The racial fantasy factor in this presidential campaign is out of control. It was at work in that New Yorker cover that caused such a stir. (Mr. Obama in Muslim garb with the American flag burning in the fireplace.) It’s driving the idea that Barack Obama is somehow presumptuous, too arrogant, too big for his britches — a man who obviously does not know his place
Mr. Obama has to endure these grotesque insults with a smile and heroic levels of equanimity. The reason he has to do this — the sole reason — is that he is black.

So there he was this week speaking evenly, and with a touch of humor, to a nearly all-white audience in Missouri. His goal was to reassure his listeners, to let them know he’s not some kind of unpatriotic ogre.”

I realize that most of white American “doesn’t get” the subliminal racism in this ad, but many of them are certainly susceptible to its manipulation. Most white Americans roll their eyes and think that black Americans should just “get over it” and that they are two sensitive.

Yes- I am a white man. But being gay has given me an “inkling” of what it is like to be “different” in this country. I know I’ll never know what it’s like to be seen as different immediately only because of your skin color. No matter how well intended- we all see color of skin first when we meet someone and it has a host of hard wired responses. I am also a San Franciscan that has devoted much of my career towards health care access for disenfranchised communities and have become quite aware of the cultural issues at play in our society as I personally have had to reckon with what “cultural competency” really means when designing a service that is meant to be accessed by various populations.

I will never forget the experience that I had about ten years ago that jolted my racial sensitivities. I thought I “understood” prejudice. But clearly I didn’t. I was in Washington DC with a colleague on our way to a meeting on Capitol Hill. My colleague is a large African American man. He is Columbia University educated and had well educated professional parents- he is upper middle class and successful. But as we tried to hail as cab, he told me that he should pull back while I try to flag down a cab, because he would have trouble getting one to stop. Instantly I was sick to my stomach and I realized that I would never be able to understand what it is like to be black and to be judged every day of your life by people who pass you by on the street.

Race is pervasive in our society and can be a powerful tool when used in manipulative subliminal advertising that plays on some of those hard wired responses to race.

This morning on “This Week”, David Gergen who has advised both Republicans and Democrats said that as a son of the south he understood some of the code, some of the buzz words that play to racist feelings. Gergen gave an example that by framing Obama as an elite (although he had a challenging childhood and everything he has accomplished he has done so on his own merits) it is clear that “they” (Republicans, McCain, Bush, etc.) are accusing Obama of being “uppity”.

I find it very odd and frustrating that a bunch of white pundits who have had precious little experience with African Americans sit around and scratch their heads about this subject. Nothing is more ironic and quite frankly painful to watch than George Will judging Donna Brazile’s statements about race being a factor in this election. Brazile astutely observed that when the issue of race isn’t confronted directly it will benefit McCain. When race is discussed openly, it benefits Obama. So it is to McCain’s benefit to put the Obama campaign on the defense and to feign outrage at the “supposed accusation” of racism.

It is sad that Mr. Obama has to act like the “House Nig**r” in order to win this election. He can’t be seen as too uppity, he has to know his place, and he can’t insult the white man although the white man has basically accused Obama of treason (saying Obama would rather lose a war than lose an election). Obama has to put up with being too “exotic”.

Mr. Obama gave an amazing speech on race and is a man who embodies multiculturalism. His own life has been an example of the difficulty of race in this country. He is African American, he is white and he was raised with a healthy dose of Asian culture. He has had to deal internally with the conflicts that are inherent when dealing with our nation’s birth defect- the legacy of race and slavery.

Mr. Obama has challenged the African American community- and called on African American men to be present in their families. He has also recalibrated the idea of affirmative action to be more class based than race based.

What is Mr. McCain’s record on race? He opposed a Martin Luther King holiday- not only at the federal level but also in his “home” state of Arizona and supported flying the Confederate flag- a symbol of black repression- over the state house in South Carolina.

I think the record speaks for itself.


  1. I’m not sure how much racism there is in that ad, but there’s no question that the Right is guilty of using race — the obsession with calling Sen. Obama “Hussein” is trying to connect him by blood to Saddam Hussein, a rather-preposterous notion but clearly rooted in bigotry. Throw in the Texas GOP convention and their buttons (“Will we still call it the White House?”), and there’s more than enough to warrant Sen. Obama saying that Republicans have used race already.

    I get the charge, but I’m not sure that showing the empty-headed celebs is so much appealing to racial fears as trying to accuse that a best-selling author, Senator, and very eloquent speaker is just a vapid celeb.

    … And that’s the closest I’m going to come to defending Sen. McCain. His ad was sleazy, juvenile, dishonest, and devoid of substance. It’s possible that the appropriate response from the Obama campaign would be “I know you are, but what am I?”

  2. I do think that interspersing pictures of sexual white women next to pictures of a black man are by their nature provactative. It plays on that basest of racial fears in this country- keeping our white women safe from those scary black men

  3. I don’t know … it might just be me, but I see African American men with white women, and never once does “I gotta keep them boys away from our girl-folk” cross my mind.

    We’ll probably just have to agree to disagree about this one … I’m certainly not willing to put any more effort into defending McCain on this ad. Frankly, now that he’s been one-upped by Paris Hilton, just about anything that is said about his joke of a campaign is superfluous.

  4. There are many like you and I who wouldn’t think twice about a black man and a woman- but sadly there are too many that still do. I somehow don’t think the ad was directed at folks like you and me.

    I do agree with you that Paris Hilton’s ad was spot on and probably the best thing she’s done in her life!

  5. Im a Canadian and It is more for me to agree with Obama because he knows more. And is a young man…… ..WHO KNOWS What he holds for Us An i’d thank GOD for OBAMA……..! PEACE to the World

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