Race-Baiting Revisited

A reader offers the most plausible explanation I've seen for why that North Carolina ad should be read as racist:

... I understand what you are saying about the race card but you also have to think about the context. An ad airing in North Carolina attacking two gubernatorial candidate in a six-degrees-of-pastor-Wright is suspicious but could be fair game (although very silly). But then take close look at the ad. Notice how Beverly Perdue, the white woman, is featured in a photo embracing Obama, a black man. But somehow Richard Moore is featured on his own.

You may think this is a detail. But anybody from the South knows perfectly well what instincts the imagery of the ad is supposed to appeal to. The blacks who have suffered that kind of stuff know it (call me, Harold). Southern Republicans who, racist or completely innocent of any racial bias, have been living in that stuff since they were born (I would give the benefit of the doubt to the ME Republican party for instance. But the NC Republicans know better), know what the implication is. And I guarantee you that the kind of people this is supposed to spook will pick up on it.

Racism or dog-whistle cynicism ? I dunno. But those kinds of things are not a coincidence and you are too smart not to know it. There may be a way to make Wright fair game (neither McCain nor Huckabee think so apparently) but this ad by the NC republican party isn't it. In the balance between preventing an abuse of the race card and preventing racism, considering our history, the focus should be the latter first and then on the former.

Well, unless the abuse of the race card actually exacerbates racial tensions, by constantly framing the ordinary rough-and-tumble of political combat as Jim Crow come again. It is, of course, possible that the North Carolina GOP was trying to stoke fears of miscegenation by running the (strikingly unsexual, to my admittedly-Yankee eye) photo of Perdue with Obama, just as it's possible that the famous anti-Harold Ford ad from last year was trying to send out a "Harold Ford is going to rape your daughters, white America" vibe with its inclusion of a blonde, bare-shouldered bimbo from the Playboy party telling Ford to call her. But in both cases, it's worth noting that the ad in question could have been cut exactly the same way if the candidate it attacked were white. If Obama were a white politician being criticized for his ties to a left-wing white preacher (yes, they do exist), the difference between the two photos of the N.C. politicians would be chalked up to Obama having appeared with Perdue and not with Moore - if, that is, anyone stopped to ponder the difference at all. Likewise, if Ford had been a white Democrat with a reputation as a dandy and a ladies man running a populist and religion-infused campaign in a Southern state, the "call me, Harold" ad would have been treated as the clever culture-war foray it was, and either celebrated or criticized on those grounds.

I certainly understand the urge to apply special scrutiny to these issues where our first plausible black Presidential candidate is concerned. And maybe I really just can't understand how subtle, and crucial, dog-whistle politics can be because I'm not from the South. But I just don't see how it strikes any sort of real blow against racism to close-read every attack ad against a black candidate for instances where he's shown edging just a little too close to a middle-aged white woman for the Bubba vote's comfort.

I would also note, for the record, that most of the voices claiming that the ad is racist aren't mentioning anything about the Obama-Bev Perdue pairing. They're suggesting, as E.J. Dionne did last week, that any attempt to tie Obama to Wright is out-of-bounds, becomes it comes with noxious "racial undertones." Or else they're claiming, as the Times did this weekend, that labeling Obama "too extreme for North Carolina" is a form of racism - because the mere use of the word "extreme" represents "a clear bid to stir bigotry in a Southern state." In other words, they're arguing for a blatant double standard, in which the sort of attacks that white politicians absorb all the time - being tied to their most controversial friends and allies, being labeled extreme or outside the mainstream - are by definition racist when they're launched against Barack Obama.