In this morning’s (7/16) Philly Inquirer, two interesting pieces on facing pages of the op-ed section. First is a letter from Tania Ciolko, arguing (correctly) that the Democratic Party has enunciated racism towards Barack Obama (she cites both Jesse Jackson and the New Yorker cover, although it’s at least possible that the New Yorker cover really is satire; she leaves alone the Clintons, who evoked racial overtones several times while Hillary was still running). Ciolko argues also, incorrectly, that because there are examples of racism among Democrats, that another letter writer some weeks ago was wrong to sound the alarm that Republicans are using racism against Obama. It’s not a zero-sum. It’s possible that both Democrats and Republicans can be racists. Or put another way, attacks from one side don’t erase attacks from the other. I would argue that they amplify, not mitigate, each other.
The second piece is a column by Earl Ofari Hutchinson. Huthinson uses the flap over the New Yorker cover as the starting point from which to argue that ultra-conservatives (whose relationship to the mainstream of the Republican Party is unclear–that’s my claim, not his) are mounting large-scale attacks against Obama, using the internet as the primary medium through which to spread seriously hate-filled stuff. He lists several websites and organizations that have spread the rumors we’ve all heard about: Obama is a secret Muslim (as if that’s some kind of crime); Obama is part of some international conspiracy to ruin America; Obama hates America; Obama went to a radical Islamic school as a kid; and so on.
In the end, the sad truth is that both writers are at least partially correct. Ciolko is correct that the ultra-conservatives don’t have a monopoly on racially-charged attacks against Obama, but she’s incorrect to draw the conclusion that therefore ultra-conservatives aren’t making them. Hutchinson is correct that ultra-conservatives are mounting tons of attacks against Obama, many of them already disproven but still circulating anyway (in hopes that their target audiences simply aren’t paying attention to the counter-evidence), but his conclusion that the New Yorker cover simply propagates those racial attacks is debatable (I tend to agree with him, but I understand why others don’t).
We’ve seen Obama confront racism as directly as any American politician in recent memory, in the speech he made here in Philly a few months ago. However, in that speech he focused on the global (racism’s long history in the US) and the personal (his multi-ethnic background) without addressing the “race card” and its place in *this campaign*. I think I understand why he’d hesitate to do so, but I can also imagine a scenario in which he renders these racial attacks for what they are, BOTH: (1) evidence that real racism is still very alive and well [sic] in the US; and (2) Swift-Boat-style mudslinging that don’t even pretend to have any roots in the reality of his life or beliefs.
To ignore either of those dimensions of the problem is likely to cost him dearly. I hope he can figure out how to address them together, while avoiding a tone that drips with the same who-cares-about-what’s-true-as-long-as-it-works as the very attacks he’s responding to. His ability to handle this situation is important on its face; he has to win this argument so his campaign isn’t destroyed by racist a**holes. It’s also important as a sign that he can confront and beat opponents with no respect for truth or decency, given that as President, he’d have to spend much of his time doing that anyway.