On Friday, Senator Obama warned a cheering audience about the Republicans. “They’re going to try to make you afraid of me. He’s young and inexperienced and he’s got a funny name. And did I mention he’s black?”
A few months ago, historian Sean Wilentz dubbed this tactic the “race-baiter card.” Smear your opponents as racists, and if there’s no evidence for the claim, accuse them of using “coded language.” There is no authoritative racial codebook, so the charge is easy to lodge. The campaign need not make such accusations directly, since sympathetic writers will do so.
Consider Senator Clinton’s “3 A.M.” television spot. The ad did not mention Obama. It merely said that if a crisis erupts while our kids are asleep, we need an experienced president to take the call. A race-neutral appeal, right? Not according to Professor Orlando Patterson. Noting that the ad’s sleeping children were white, he recalled the silent movie Birth of a Nation. This racist epic glorified the Klan, picturing black men as threatening and brutish. “The danger implicit in the phone ad — as I see it — is that the person answering the phone might be a black man, someone who could not be trusted to protect us from this threat.”
Patterson’s charge was ridiculous. The ad was a lineal descendant of a 1968 Nixon commercial, which showed a nighttime still of the White House, along with ominous music and a voiceover saying that the president’s decisions “can affect the future of your family for generations to come.” Nixon’s opponent was Hubert Humphrey, a Norwegian American.
An even more audacious accusation came after Obama spoke of “bitter” working people who “cling to guns or religion.” Critics slammed him as an elitist, and many conservatives noted that he was the latest in a long line of liberal snobs. One may think that that likening Obama to Adlai Ewing Stevenson II and John Forbes Kerry is about as un-racist as you can get. Yet journalist David K. Shipler wrote: “‘Elitist’ is another word for ‘arrogant,’ which is another word for ‘uppity,’ that old calumny applied to blacks who stood up for themselves.”
And “outlandish” is another word for “absurd,” which is another word for “preposterous.”
In the months ahead, expect similar attacks from Obama and his allies. “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun,” he recently said. He failed to add that the knife can be imaginary.
The attacks will have an effect, since many Republicans have grown skittish about racial issues. McCain goes to almost-risible lengths to avoid the kind of language that Obama warned against. In February, he repudiated a supporter for — take a deep breath — using Obama’s middle name in public. McCain may try to insulate himself even further by occasionally praising Obama. That approach won’t work.
Last year, Joseph Biden got reams of bad publicity when he said that Obama is “articulate.” An article in the New York Times suggested that the word had a subtext: “articulate … for a black person.” The writer explained: “Such a subtext is inherently offensive because it suggests that the recipient of the ‘compliment’ is notably different from other black people.” Never mind that Biden had applied the same term to people from many ethnic backgrounds, and that others had often applied it to him.
So just picture how Obama supporters would react if McCain tried various compliments.
“Barack Obama is extremely intelligent.”
McCain is hinting that black people have lower IQs than white people.
“Barack Obama is very nice.”
McCain is obviously playing to the stereotype of violent black males. He’s suggesting that most black people are anything but nice.
“Barack Obama walks on water.”
McCain thinks that black people can’t swim.
– John J. Pitney, Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College.