Monday, September 21, 2009

RIP - The Meaningfulness of Racism as an Issue

Vapid accusations of racism do the issue a severe disservice

As Michael Coren notes in his SUN media op/ed column, racism used to mean something.

"A racist was someone who judged another person not on their ability, character or achievements but purely and exclusively on the colour of their skin or ethnic background," Coren writes. "Members of racial minorities such as blacks, Jews or Asians lost jobs, were denied basic human rights, enslaved and even murdered. Racism, as I say, used to mean something."

"Not now," Coren continues. "Racism still exists of course, but being called a racist often means you are winning an argument against a liberal or merely stating a conservative or orthodox opinion."

Former US President Jimmy Carter and New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd took turns accusing Obama's political opponents of being racists.

"I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he's African-American," said Carter. "There is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president."

How is it that people like Jimmy Carter and Maureen Dowd know that Barack Obama's opponents are racist? Why, because they say so.

"[Joe Wilson's] outburst was certainly rude but there surely was no racist aspect to it. Not so explains Dowd. She heard the unspoken, 'You lie, boy!'" Coren writes. "Ah, now I see. Even though the word 'boy' was never uttered it must have been meant because Obama is of mixed race and Wilson is a white man who opposes him."

Carter's and Dowd's arguments don't hold water in a rational mind. Then again, they were never meant to.

Rather, they're meant to obscure the issues being debated in the United States right now and shame and intimidate Obama's opponents into silence.

"It is unfair and itself divisive to impute racial motives to Mr Obama's opponents without evidence," writes McGill political scientist Gil Troy. "The shrill opposition reflects the high stakes surrounding the current debate, Americans' enduring ambivalence about big government and the ugly way modern politics plays out in the media, within the blogosphere and on the streets."

"Mr Obama is controversial because he is seeking big changes," Troy continues. "Mr Obama wants to be a transformational president. ...Spending nearly a trillion dollars to stimulate the economy, taking over the U.S. auto industry, and now trying to solve the perennial health-care riddle – while protecting America and seeking world peace – are sweeping goals. No wonder there's pushback."

"The conservative counterattack is particularly intense because Mr Obama seems to forget that Americans have mixed feelings about big government," Troy explains. "There's a strong individualistic streak in American thought. Every major jump in the government's mandate has encountered fierce resistance."

Yet because Carter and Dowd have found such an immediately receptive audience amongst the political commentators at the increasingly-FOX News-like CSNBC, people like themselves -- and clods like Janeane Garofalo -- have been utterly unrepentant about their relentless playing of the race card.

Carter, for his own part, ought to be embarrassed. Race-baiting should be considered below any former President, even one as terrible as Carter was.

“I’m deeply disturbed by those accusations because it’s a unfair and untrue commentary on the American people and them exercising their god-give rights to disagree with the administration," said John McCain. "It seems to me that President Carter has earned his place as – if not the worst President in history – certainly the worst in the twentieth century.”

McCain, as some may recall, was also accused of racism during the 2008 election, particularly when Obama's most unscrupulous supporters had no other rebuttal to offer.

Fortunately, Barack Obama himself takes a very different take on the matter. He knows full well that there isn't a total absence of racism in the movement that has risen against him, but at least he refuses to exaggerate it.

"Are there people out there who don't like me because of race? I'm sure there are. That's not the overriding issue here," Obama recently said. Instead, Obama rightly attributes the criticisms to a debate over the role of government "usually that much more fierce during times of transition or when presidents are trying to bring about big changes."

Just like Gil Troy suggested.

"Even though we're having a passionate disagreement here, we can be civil with each other, and we can try to express ourselves acknowledging that we're all patriots, we're all Americans and not assume the absolute worst in people's motives," Obama concluded.

To which any rational individual should be able to say "amen".

But people like Jimmy Carter, Maureen Dowd, Janeane Garofalo, Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow clearly don't want cooler -- and more rational -- heads to prevail. It's just not in their game plan.

"It is dishonest for Mr Carter, Ms Dowd and others to play the race card, implying that anyone who dares disagree with Mr Obama's health-care plan or stimulus package is a redneck," Troy concludes. "American politics needs a different tone – these delusional, demagogic, racial recriminations only make things worse."

Barack Obama -- in his handling of this issue and others -- has shown himself to be a very wise leader. But unfortunately, both Obama himself and the issue of racism are being done a severe disservice by Carter, Dowd and company. By envoking racism for petty political purposes they risk casting the entire issue as permanently vapid and meaningless.

The very best that can be hoped for is that the opportunistic and savage attempts of these demagogues to steamroll their opposition under accusations of racism will help challenge some traditional -- but fallacious -- notions about racism.

" It was always said that racism can only come from a group with power. That's a deeply fallacious argument and, even if it were true, power is no longer in the hands of a creamy few," Michael Coren concludes. "Obama is powerful, not a racist. Some of his friends who are black, such as his former minister Jeremiah Wright, are not powerful but are racist."

Unfortunately, it all may be too much to hope for so long as partisan demogogues are bastardizing the issue.


  1. Patrick,

    Generally a good post. I don't agree with all characterizations you offer of some of media personalities involved - but I do agree that Dowd, especially, is guilty of irrational exuberance (i.e. anti-race-bating).

    Carter is a different thing - I don't believe he should be lumped into the same category as some of the guilty. I believe he was sincere... and to a great degree - correct.

  2. Well, I can almost respect that.

    But I consider my assessment of the media personalities identified to be spot-on. When Keith Olbermann sits and nods when Janeane Garofalo insists that the only issue at play in the Tea Party protests was racism he offically slipped into partisan hack territory.

    And, like I noted, Obama seems to understand what the prevailing issue is for his detractors. I think he's wise enough to understand that if he really wants his Presidency to be treated like a race war, the best way to do that is to play the race card at every opportunity.

    These other folks don't seem to share that understanding.


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