Race-Baiting Redux?

A quick-spreading fire can be a cautionary tale

If Campaign 2008 is a china shop and discussions of race are the china, then the media are the bull. Which is another way of saying what should be obvious at this particularly contentious juncture in this particularly contentious campaign: that accusations of race-baiting against either presidential candidate should be handled with the utmost care—because, when the media buck around with those accusations willy-nilly, they have the tendency to pulverize pretty much everything they touch.

Well, metaphorical Fragile Object, meet metaphorical Bull. Today, race-baiting accusations are again upon us, according to the banner headline currently emblazoned on the home page of The Huffington Post:

The story? John McCain has a new attack ad out, in which he implicates Barack Obama in the implosion of Fannie Mae. “Obama has no background in economics,” the ad intones.

Who advises him? The Post says it’s Franklin Raines, for “advice on mortgage and housing policy.” Shocking. Under Raines, Fannie Mae committed “extensive financial fraud.” Raines made millions. Fannie Mae collapsed. Taxpayers? Stuck with the bill. Barack Obama. Bad advice. Bad instincts. Not ready to lead.

The problem, allegedly? Franklin Raines is black.

The ad juxtaposes images of Obama and Raines, two black men—which one could read, if one chooses, as an insidious pander to people’s insidious fears about black men. “This is hardly subtle,” Time’s Karen Tumulty writes. “Sinister images of two black men, followed by one of a vulnerable-looking elderly white woman.”

Let me stipulate: Obama’s Fannie Mae connections are completely fair game. But this ad doesn’t even mention a far more significant tie—that of Jim Johnson, the former Fannie Mae chairman who had to resign as head of Obama’s vice presidential search team after it was revealed he got a sweetheart deal on a mortgage from Countrywide Financial. Instead, it relies on a fleeting and tenuous reference in a Washington Post Style section story to suggest that Obama’s principal economic adviser is former Fannie Mae Chairman Frank Raines. Why? One reason might be that Johnson is white; Raines is black.

The AP, to some extent, corroborates Tumulty’s reading of the ad in its reporting. It also challenges that reading:

Obama’s campaign says Raines is not an Obama adviser and that McCain’s campaign knows it because Raines said so in an e-mail earlier this week to Carly Fiorina, a top McCain adviser. Obama’s campaign provided The Associated Press with a copy of the e-mail.

“Carly: Is this true?” Raines asks above a forwarded note informing him that Fiorina was on television saying he was an Obama housing adviser. “I am not an adviser to the Obama campaign. Frank.”

Obama’s campaign says Fiorina did not respond.

McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said he was not aware of the e-mail to Fiorina, but noted that the Post reported on three occasions, between July 16 and Aug. 28, that Raines was advising Obama.

“If he was not advising, obviously someone somewhere along the way should have corrected the record,” Rogers said.

Tumulty may have a point in sounding the race-baiting alarm. And if indeed a campaign is engaging in race-baiting tactics, that needs to be called out. But today’s blog-post-to-banner-headline trajectory once again highlights how quickly the fire of Racial Tumult (no pun intended) can spread. There’s a thin line between exposure and exacerbation when it comes to talk of race-baiting. If we’re going to engage in accusations and discussions of race-baiting, it’s worth stepping back for a moment and asking who, in the end, is being baited.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.