It used to be that the conversation about the very difficult subject of race in America was best left to African-Americans, because only they have experienced the active or passive oppression that many whites cannot comprehend.
Let the Walter and Armstrong Williamses, the Thomas Sowells and Floyd Flakes, the Michael and Shelby Steeles, the Larry Elders and Ward Connerlys and Jay Parkers — the theory went — haggle it out with the Al Sharptons and Jesse Jacksons, the Carl Rowans and Julian Bonds, the Adam Clayton Powells and (of course) the Martin Luther Kings.
Then came two realizations — (1) the African-American community is as ideologically divided (between conservatives and liberals) as the white community, and (2) the McCain-Obama campaign is at hand. So now the discussion is open to all.
Rightly or wrongly and largely unspoken, race is a deep-running factor in American culture — infusing much that it should not but does. Barack Obama is the first African-American with a genuine prospect of becoming president of an electorate that is 11 percent black and 77 percent white. Because of that percentage discrepancy, Obama’s chances of winning depend greatly on the extent to which — in commentator Juan Williams’ words — he can “assure undecided white voters that he shares their (conservative social) values and is worthy of their trust.”
So how seemingly odd that Obama should inject race into the campaign. Possibly he did it to build a force field around him to deflect every criticism of every kind.
During the primaries, he blasted Bill Clinton for allegedly making race an issue in the Carolinas — implying Clinton was doing it to gin up white turnout for Hillary. Obama also perceived subtle racial undertones in John McCain’s first general-election ad — i.e., its description of McCain as “the American president Americans have been waiting for.”
In late June, Obama began mentioning his race (as he frequently had) in combination with dark implications that McCain would deploy race against Obama (as McCain never has): They’re going to try to make you afraid. They’re going to try to make you afraid of me. “He’s young and inexperienced and he’s got a funny name. And did I mention he’s black?”
Finally on July 31, in Springfield, Mo., Obama dealt down and dirty:
“Nobody really thinks that Bush or McCain have a real answer for the challenges we face. So what they’re going to try to do is make you scared of me. You know — he’s not patriotic enough. He’s got a funny name. You know, he doesn’t look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills. You know. He’s risky. That’s essentially the argument they’re making.” (Italics added.)
Ross Mackenzie lives with his wife and Labrador retriever in the woods west of Richmond, Virginia. They have two grown sons, both Naval officers.
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