Race and the elec­tion

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Tony Blank­ley

Race, the yet un-closed scab that has run deep through our his­tory, is about to be dis­cussed as it has never been in a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. In fair­ness to the United States, racial at­ti­tudes (or man’s view of the “other” man) is a uni­ver­sal phe­nom­e­non that in most coun­tries ei­ther goes un­spo­ken, or re­sults in straight out eth­nic cleans­ing and mur­der. Here in Amer­ica, in our earnest striv­ing to­ward per­fected tol­er­ance and equal­ity, we lo­qua­ciously ag­o­nize over our short­com­ings — and it is well that we do.

In this un­prece­dented elec­tion year we run the risk of hav­ing two con­ver­sa­tions: a po­lite, pub­lic one that uses eu­phemisms or eva­sions about race, and a nasty private one that is likely to dredge up the worst within us — the con­ver­sa­tion that won’t be on television, but will be on the in­ter­net and on the sub­way and wher­ever peo­ple con­gre­gate to chat. I would ar­gue that the more hon­est the pub­lic con­ver­sa­tion is, the less vir­u­lent the private one will be — and therein lies the path to max­i­mum civic hy­giene. Lit­tle drives peo­ple more crazy than hear­ing of­fi­cial and pub­lic balder­dash spo­ken (or worse, si­lence) about sub­jects that are deeply cared about.

And therein I re­spect­fully dis­sent from the com­ments last week by my friend and for­mer Rea­gan White House col­league, Peggy Noo­nan — who ar­gued that it was “vul­gar” and de­struc­tive of the body politic to talk about race (she re­ferred specif­i­cally to Hil­lary Clin­ton’s “white peo­ple” re­mark. Peggy left open, sort of, the right of “blovi­a­tors” and hired hands to raise the dirty topic — but by im­pli­ca­tion she sug­gests that no de­cent com­men­ta­tor would do such a thing.)

Vul­gar? Yes, I will give Peggy that. But demo­cratic pol­i­tics is in­her­ently vul­gar. The first two def­i­ni­tions of vul­gar in my dic­tionary is “of or as­so­ci­ated with the great masses of peo­ple, com­mon; spo­ken by or ex­pressed in lan­guage spo­ken by the com­mon peo­ple, ver­nac­u­lar.” Peggy will al­ways, and de­servedly, be on the short list of great White House speech­writ­ers. Her spe­cialty was (and is) the lyri­cal, the po­etic, the al­lu­sion to the best, the sweet­est and the finest that is Amer­ica. And no chord of demo­cratic mu­sic should be with­out those notes.

But those notes are not the full chord of democ­racy — and a chord with only those notes will not ring fully true to the pub­lic. There are also the gritty, con­tra­pun­tal tones that por­tray the edgi­ness and ten­sion of life — so that, for ex­am­ple, Beethoven’s in­no­va­tive use of the dis­cor­dant dom­i­nant sev­enth chord took his mu­sic be­yond the aris­to­cratic per­fec­tion of Mozart and into the revo­lu­tion­ary age of the peo­ple’s pas­sion.

So, what are we to make of the fact that Barack Obama’s African fa­ther causes him to be seen as the first African Amer­i­can or black nom­i­nee for pres­i­dent? I would ar­gue that be­ing black, some­what like (but more in­tensely) be­ing a wo­man, be­ing very ugly or very beau­ti­ful, be­ing dif­fer­ent in any de­mo­graphic or cul­tural way — tends to in­duce one of two ab­nor­mal re­sponses. For a few, it is straight-out big­otry (“I’ll never vote for a black, an Ir­ish­man, an English dog, a pretty boy like Rom­ney, a Jew, a wo­man, etc.”). Those votes are lost to ra­tio­nal de­bate. But for a larger num­ber of vot­ers there ex­ists some ex­tra re- sis­tance to vot­ing for some­one who — on the sur­face — seems dif­fer­ent. This is race (or other de­mo­graphic) con­scious­ness — but not straight out big­otry. For th­ese vot­ers they need more ev­i­dence to con­vince them that this seem­ingly “dif­fer­ent” kind of per­son is, un­der the sur­face, much the same as the voter.

For Mrs. Clin­ton, be­ing a wo­man was a re­sis­tance fac­tor for some. Some peo­ple think that women are less likely to be able to deal with mil­i­tary mat­ters, for­eign pol­icy, etc. Hil­lary smartly de­cided to con­front that re­sis­tance by go­ing on the Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee in the Se­nate and prov­ing to the doubters that she was as tough and able to deal with such mat­ters as the tough­est men. On that count, she suc­ceeded. Her can­di­dacy has prob­a­bly failed for many other rea­sons — but not be­cause of her de­mo­graphic “dis­ad­van­tage.”

For Mr. Obama, as vot­ers are start­ing to look for ev­i­dence to ei­ther con­firm or re­fute their early sus­pi­cion of “oth­er­ness,” he has of­fered mixed ev­i­dence. Per­son­ally, the way he car­ries him­self and speaks, his calm rea­son­able­ness, his ad­mirable wit and charm have worked to his fa­vor. But his as­so­ci­a­tions, and his San Fran­cisco state­ment, his wife’s seem­ing anger at Amer­ica, tend to con­firm for some that he is in fact not a suf­fi­ciently typ­i­cal Amer­i­can.

Th­ese might be fac­tors even if Barack were An­glo Saxon. But it is fool­ish to deny that the sus­pi­cions are more fo­cused be­cause of his race. On the other hand, it is not all race. For ex­am­ple, if for­mer Sec­re­tary of State Colin Pow­ell were run­ning, his life­time of fa­mous and gal­lant mil­i­tary and high gov­ern­ment ser­vice would lower the re­sis­tance fac­tor that the lesser ac­com­plished Mr. Obama is fac­ing.

The next test for him is to avoid hav­ing his pol­icy pro­pos­als seem so rad­i­cal (al­most in a Euro­pean, semiso­cial­ist way), he will be seen as “other” not only by ge­net­ics but by phi­los­o­phy. For Mr. Obama, rad­i­cal pol­icy will be even more elec­torally dan­ger­ous than it was for Ge­orge McGovern.

Let’s have an hon­est con­ver­sa­tion with nei­ther ran­kle nor eu­phemism.

Tony Blank­ley is ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent for global pub­lic af­fairs at Edel­man In­ter­na­tional.

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