Obama and the Race Card


New York mag’s new clump of articles, under the rubric “Race: The Impossible Conversation (But Here Goes . . .),” finally drags the elephant in the living room into full view.

I wrote last Friday, referring to the press’s tap dance around the issue, that “it’s the race, stupid,” but John Heilemann doesn’t dance around in the lead piece, “The Color-Coded Campaign: Why isn’t Obama doing better in the polls? The answer no one wants to hear.”

Here’s a morsel:

Call me crazy, but isn’t it possible, just possible, that Obama’s lead is being inhibited by the fact that he is, you know, black? “Of course it is,” says another prominent Republican operative. “It’s the thing that nobody wants to talk about, but it’s obviously a huge factor.”

The desire to ignore the elephant in the room is easy to understand, but Obama will not have that luxury. With the Jeremiah Wright fiasco, Obama was stripped of his post-racial image, transformed in the eyes of many whites from a candidate who happened to be black into a black candidate. And now he faces a Republican machine intent on blackening him further still.

Heilemann adds:

Obama has to make the country comfortable with the most unusual profile of any person ever to come within spitting distance of occupying the White House—while at the same time preventing the election from becoming a race consumed by race.

Part of the package is Patricia J. Williams‘s fluent “Talking About Not Talking About Race.” I’d quibble with this “post-racial” thing that she and Heilemann bandy about. But that’s not an egregious fault. Williams uses sociology (though not, thankfully, the worst of sociologists’ jargon) to write about the “race card,” particularly the unspoken one:

This is a complicated monkey wrench in our supposedly post-race society. On the one hand, everyone knows that race matters to a greater or lesser degree; on the other, few of us want to admit it. Indeed, race is the one topic that’s probably even more taboo in polite company than sex.

Yet in the absence of fact or frank conversation, grown people get buried in the kind of whispered fear, fantasy, and ignorant mistake that a 5-year-old makes when explaining how icky it was when Daddy got Mommy pregnant using the garden hose and a large bowl of avocados.

Is this misinformation really so different from when Fox News and Karl Rove fill in the blanks of those awkward silences with images of the perpetually pantyless Paris Hilton rocking the foundations of our civilization on the same stage as Barack Hussein Osama, oops, I mean Obama. This is racial pornography that exploits the barely suppressed caverns of imagined horrors that have haunted us since D.W. Griffith‘s Birth of a Nation.

For a magazine that’s been particularly ditzy and lame lately, this is a good package — just about as good as the one that fearful white males probably think Obama has.