The news media have been shamefully stoking the idea that the only way Barack Obama could possibly lose the presidential election is if American racists have their way. Indeed, the fact that Obama isn't leading in polls by a wide margin "doesn't make sense ... unless it's race," says CNN's Jack Cafferty.
Slate's Jacob Weisberg says Obama is losing among older white voters because of the "color of his skin."
Many journalists are so committed to the racism-explains-everything line they are labeling any effective anti-Obama ad as an attempt by John McCain to "viciously exacerbate" America's "race-fueled angst," in the words of one New York magazine writer.
For example, a McCain ad noted that Franklin Raines, the Clinton-appointed former head of Fannie Mae who helped bring about the current Wall Street meltdown, advised the Obama campaign. Time's Karen Tumulty gasped that because Raines is black, McCain is playing the race card.
Why, she wants to know, didn't McCain attack Obama's even stronger ties to the even more culpable former Fannie Mae chairman, Jim Johnson, who had to resign from Obama's vice presidential search team because of his sketchy dealings with mortgage giant Countrywide Financial? "One reason might be that Johnson is white; Raines is black," Tumulty suggests.
Or another reason might be that the McCain campaign was saving that attack for its next ad, which is what happened.
According to critics, McCain's "celebrity" ads featuring Paris Hilton and Britney Spears were nothing but tawdry race-baiting because they subliminally played on white America's fear of black men violating the delicate flowers of white American womanhood. You'd think a cognitive warning bell would have gone off the moment anyone started suggesting that Paris Hilton and Britney Spears are icons of chastity.
This spectacle is grotesque. It reveals how little the supposedly objective press corps thinks of the American people - and how highly they think of themselves ... and Obama. Obama's lack of experience, his doctrinaire liberalism, his record, his known associations with Weatherman radical William Ayers and the hate-mongering Rev. Jeremiah Wright: These cannot possibly be legitimate motivations to vote against Obama, in this view.
Similarly, McCain's experience, his record of bipartisanship, his heroism: These too count for nothing.
Racism is all there is. Obama wins, and America sheds its racial past. Obama loses, and we're a nation of "Bull" Connors.
Much of the argument for the centrality of race in this election hinges on the so-called Bradley effect. In 1982, Tom Bradley, Los Angeles' black mayor, was polling well among white voters in the race for California governor. Bradley lost, suggesting that large numbers of whites had lied to pollsters about their intention to vote for him.
I have no doubt that the Bradley effect is real. But the Bradley effect does not reflect racism; it captures voters' fear of appearing racist. There's no reason to assume those who lie to pollsters are racists. But for Obama supporters and the media, poll results are some kind of sacred, binding covenant. If voters don't keep their promise, the media have no problem seeing racism at work.
The media's obsession with race in this election is probably fueling the Bradley effect. Repeating over and over that voting against Obama is racist only makes non-racist people embarrassed to admit that they plan to vote for McCain.
Another rich irony is that the only racists who matter in this election are the ones in the Democratic Party. News flash: Republicans aren't voting for the Democratic nominee because they're Republicans. A new AP-Yahoo News poll claims that racial prejudice is a significant factor among the independents and Democrats Obama needs to win, specifically among Hillary Clinton's primary voters. According to the pollsters' statistical modeling, support for Obama may be as much as 6 percentage points lower than it would be if there were no white racism.
I'm skeptical about those findings, as well as the overemphasis on race generally. But to the extent that race is a factor, here's the richest irony of all: Obama's problem is with precisely those voters the Democratic Party claims to fight for, working- and middle-class white folks. Of course, Democrats can't openly complain that their own vital constituency is racist.
If the media were more objective, we'd be hearing a lot more about the racism at the heart of the Democratic Party. (Imagine if the black nominee this year were a Republican!) But such objectivity would cause too much cognitive dissonance for a press corps that defines "racist" as shorthand for Republican and sees itself as the publicity arm of the Obama campaign.