campaign desk

Those Obama "Concerns"

What’s talked about when we don’t talk about race
May 14, 2008

Yesterday’s Washington Post featured a story on race and the Obama campaign, one that went beyond the tea leaves of exit polls and voting behavior. Kevin Merida, with contributions from Peter Slevin, catalogued a half-dozen instances of clear racism towards Obama encountered by reporters or campaign staffers and volunteers. A phonebanker says a voter called Obama a “darky” and urged he be lynched. Others say they, regardless of their own race, had racial slurs thrown their way while campaigning. Another says a Clinton volunteer pointed to her Obama t-shirt and called the Senator a “half-breed.”

While most of the evidence is second-hand, it’s a frank, valuable piece on how Obama’s chances are affected by racism.

On Monday, The Financial Times made an attempt at something similar. Their reporter interviewed twenty-two West Virginians—it’s worth mentioning that they were all attending a Bill Clinton event—and found some who said they were concerned about Rev. Wright, the flag pin, his foreign ancestry, his name, his specious “Muslim-ness.”

From that, the reporter produces two damning quotes—one for the lede and one for the kicker. Here they are:

“I heard that Obama is a Muslim and his wife’s an atheist.”


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“I want someone who is a full-blooded American as president.”

None of those concerns, to put it gently, are a particularly good basis on which to pick a president. But note how none of the FT’s examples are literally based on Obama’s race. Rather they focus on a slippery set of (dubiously or almost entirely-dubiously grounded) “concerns” about his nationality, religion, and patriotism.

That nuance doesn’t stop the FT from claiming that these voters’ rebuke of Obama is likely to, “raise fresh doubts about whether the US is ready to elect its first black president.”

So how to get around that disconnect? Luckily the FT slips this bare, but still helpful, sentence in: “Obama supporters believe patriotism is being used as code to harness racist sentiment.”

And that’s an important point missing from the Washington Post’s piece, which, in addition to unadulterated racism, details attacks and slurs on Obama for issues of nationality, religion, and patriotism. Essentially, it makes the same point the FT made, but even less explicitly than the FT, by mixing clear racism with more oblique “concerns.”

The Washington Post article excerpts a letter to the editor by a local, Clinton-backing, Pennsylvania pol that pointed out Wright, Obama’s supposed failure to salute the flag, his time in Muslim Indonesia, before suggesting he’d shun the bible when taking the oath of office. And it mentions an incident that’s gotten little press attention: the vandalization of his Vincennes, Indiana campaign office. A window was broken, and Obama’s full initials (remember what the “H” stands for?) was spray painted along with mentions of Hamas and the Reverend Wright.

Again, none of that’s literally about Obama’s race. But tack enough of that together, and all the sudden there’s a language that allows people to talk about deep-seated hesitancies without using the taboo language of race. Call it para-racist language.

To be sure, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to oppose Obama, and no one should make overblown charges of racism an unjustified blanket defense. Not even every concern voiced about Obama’s background is racist—as sensationally and poorly reported as they were, Reverend Wright’s statements could give some voters pause—but much of it is para-racist. Sure, the lines get blurry, and teasing out the difference isn’t always easy. But that shouldn’t stop the press from trying.

The FT piece falls short in many areas—it makes large charges based on just one event’s worth of reporting, and ignores a lot of important context about the part of West Virginia in question. Still, there is something laudable in pointing out, as the FT did, how some believe that talk of Obama’s patriotic, religious, or nationality bonafides is para-racial. I have little doubt it usually is. But in both articles, that point needed to be made in a more explicit, more supported fashion.

The para-racial attacks on Obama won’t stop as he turns towards the general. When they happen, reporting on them is a good thing. When they are false, debunking them is vital. But explaining them is right.

Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.