Senator Barack Obama said last week that he wanted to start a conversation about race in this country. Based on the response by the punditry and columnists, he got his wish. And based on the responses from some of the more reactionary right wingers, they don’t want to hear anything about it. At all.
The responses range from the arrogantly dismissive to the vile, and an apparently sincere query from Pat Buchanan who wonders why black people aren’t grateful* that the white people took them out of the jungle and gave them all the wonders and benefits of living in America. William Kristol comes closest to summarizing the conservative mindset in his column in the New York Times:
With respect to having a national conversation on race, my recommendation is: Let’s not, and say we did.
His reasoning is that Mr. Obama doesn’t really want to talk about race, he just wants to exploit it for his political ambitions. It’s refreshing how transparent Mr. Kristol is in his transference and projection.
The reason the conservatives don’t want to talk about race is because they know that every time the conversation turns to it, they lose. Their record on race relations is dismal and they know it, and they also know that if they try to run against Mr. Obama on the race issue alone, they will get hammered by the Democrats and anyone else, including moderate Republicans, who recognize that race still plays an important role in our society from education to health care and everything else that defines us. To ignore it, trivialize it, or even resent it — or, as Mr. Kristol does, stick your fingers in your ears, close your eyes, and yell “Shut up! Shut up!” — makes it abundantly clear that for whatever reason Mr. Obama brought it up, race has always been an issue in American life and politics and will be long after this election is over.
This approach may, in the short term, put the Democrats at a disadvantage. They have neither the cunning or the megaphone of talk-radio demagoguery to manipulate the masses as the conservatives do or the instinct to do it as naturally as they breathe. But as Digby says, it’s going to reap a larger benefit for them — and the country — if they continue to talk about the issue and challenge the Republicans to do the same.
The fact is that faced with circumstances that make the prospect of a victory easier than they could usually expect, Democrats have used that opportunity to break through some long standing barriers to blacks and women in spite of the fact that it would lessen their advantage. This is an unusual and counterintuitive step for a party out of power to take — generally they go the safe route after being beaten two elections in a row and nominate the most mainstream candidate they can find. So, good for the Democrats for using their advantage to do more than just win an election. (And truthfully, when else could they possibly do it? When the Republicans are on a roll?)
I have long believed that Democrats will win in the fall and I still think so. But no election is guaranteed and running the first African American and the first woman undoubtedly made it harder than it otherwise would have been. But that’s the price you pay for progress.
It also points out the fact that if the Democrats didn’t have Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton to run this year and went with a mainstream candidate — John Edwards, Chris Dodd, or Joe Biden — they would have still faced the right-wing buzz saw that seeks out and destroys anyone who dares to run against whatever terrorist-fighting God-fearing straight white True Believer who is anointed by the GOP. All are equal in the path of their destruction, right? Well, not this time. They have to be careful not to remind the voters that it was conservatives who stood in the way of progress for African-Americans and women at every turn, and they’re going to be held to account for it. And that has them scared to the point that they are launching these witless and tactless attacks, even to the point of employing the N-word. So the more they demand that we not talk about it or remind us that there are unsavory elements in every race and culture, the more we must talk about it. It can do nothing but good, and if it further marginalizes the right wing trolls, well, that’s just icing on the cake.
*Which reminds me of the song “Smile, Smile” from the 1967 musical Hallelujah, Baby! (hear a clip from it here) that reminds blacks how grateful they should be living under the largess of the benevolent white folk.