Allen vs. Webb: The Great Race Race Continues

Mary Katharine Ham
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Posted: Sep 27, 2006 4:41 PM

Dear sweet, gracious Lord.

I've been a little out of the loop the last couple days, but apparently we're still talking about whether or not George Allen is a racist. Or, whether or not Jim Webb is one, too, although since he's a Democrat now, that's well nigh impossible.

Here's what I've missed.

Larry Sabato, a UVA political scientist and professor of some esteem, said the other night on MSNBC that he's sure Allen's used the n-word. That night, he was intimating that he had specifically heard Allen say it at some point, but wasn't divulging the actual anecdote. Today, Sabato seems to be backing off that claim (emphasis mine):

One of Virginia's best-known political analysts said he had never personally heard Sen. George Allen (news, bio, voting record) use racial epithets, despite saying on television a day earlier that the senator "did use the n-word."

Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said Tuesday in an e-mail to The Associated Press, "I didn't personally hear GFA (Allen's initials) say the n-word.

"My conclusion is based on the very credible testimony I have heard for weeks, mainly from people I personally know and knew in the '70s," Sabato wrote.

So, Sabato is fairly certain Allen used racial epithets, and his take is based not on personal experience, but on the same stories we've been hearing all week from the former teammates the Post and Salon have been calling. That's the same information everyone had. So, the MSNBC report is not a bombshell corroboration, but an opinion.

That's all well and good, and Sabato is entitled to his opinion, but I find it interesting that he waits a couple news cycles to clarify himself, so that the added credibility his story--and clear implication that he himself had witnessed Allen's racism--gave the accusations had some time to percolate. Classy.

Another teammate has this bombshell corroboration-- Allen did, in fact, go hunting with teammates when he was in college. Whether or not he decapitated a doe so he could stick her severed head into a black family's mailbox is still in question-- Ken Shelton's word vs. Allen's-- but he did go hunting! Hey, it's all but confirmed!

Elsewhere, blogger Doug Thompson claims he was within earshot of Allen on many occasions when the senator lapsed into racial hate-speech, which Thompson claims really isn't all that surprising given that...well, I'll let him explain:

It was not unusual to hear racial slurs at gatherings of Republicans. Many GOP events are all-white. Allen, and others, would call Arabs "rag heads," Afro-Americans "niggers" and homosexuals "fags" or "queers" as part of their normal conversation. They would laugh at each other's racist jokes. When Allen and another well-known Senate Republican racist, Montana's Conrad Burns, got together the slurs would fly like confetti through the air.

John Hawkins has pointed out in the past that Doug Thompson has a way of being uniquely positioned to report on stories that turn out being not so true, unless your definition of truth is found in the depths of Democratic Underground.

Here's the deal, guys. I do not love George Allen. Some of my commenters on previous Allen posts think I'm too easy on him, implying that I'm a little bit in the tank of this good ol' boy's pick-up. Nah, he's my Senator and I think he does a fine job. By all accounts, he was a decent governor and a good leader, but that was before I got to this state. The criticism in my comments amounts to folks being upset that I'm insufficiently anxious to conclude that George Allen is a big ol' Stonewall-worshippin', Old South-eulogizin', Jim Crow-praisin,' evil, evil racist.

You're damn right I'm not anxious. You know why? Because being called a racist is about the worst thing someone can call you in American society. It's worse than homophobe. It's worse than bigot. Hell, being accused of racism will likely get you more coverage in the NYT than being accused of terrorism. For public figures, the label can be even more catastrophic than for an ordinary person, and the threshhold for attaching the label is quite a bit lower than for ordinary citizens.

To some extent, this is as it should be. Racism is a terrible, terrible thing. We should denounce it when we see it in order to discourage it. Public figures are, of course, held to a higher standard than the rest of us when it comes to sensitive political issues. We expect more of them, and mistakes often mean they fall harder because they fall from great heights and, generally, in front of a TV audience.

But, given that accusations of racism can be so detrimental, isn't it fair to demand a high level of evidence before we start throwing the word around willy-nilly? One doesn't have to be guilty of racism to feel the effects of the accusation. The accusation alone is enough to taint, especially in a tight election in which the man you're accusing is a white, male, Republican, Southern politician. So, that's why I'm insufficiently anxious to call him a racist.

And, yes, I acknowledge that Allen has misstepped enough to make this a story and to make the accusations more credible, but I still feel like they're shaky and too often the result of Virginia Democrats conveniently unburdening their consciences right before every election Allen faces.

Plus, I find comparing teammates' notes on whether he used the n-word 35 years ago much less instructive in determining his attitudes toward minorities than his legislative and gubernatorial careers, both of which continue to get him elected to high office despite the fact that the state of Virginia is not entirely populated with grizzled, old racists. Or is it? I'm gonna start calling the state of Virginia's old football teammates.

There's more to this, and I'm working on something column-length about it, but I wanted to get an update out there.