Racist attacks on Barack Obama are few and far between, but that hasn't stopped the media from sensationalising them
Liberal journalists are combing the back roads of America looking for evidence of the resurgent racism being generated by the prospect of a black man becoming president. The striking thing is how little they've turned up in a country of 300m people with plenty of racial conflict in its history.
Here's how the Associated Press led a roundup story on Friday: "Race, an inescapable but explosive issue on which both presidential candidates have tread carefully if not tried to ignore, is increasingly popping up as it's becoming more likely the country will elect its first black president."
But since they couldn't find anything coming from John McCain, Sarah Palin or any of their staff or surrogates that would justify such a claim, the first evidence cited was that Democratic congressmen John Murtha and John Lewis had accused Barack Obama's opponents of racism.
Eventually the AP story got around to citing the evidence of racism directed toward Obama that its vast nationwide reporting staff had turned up:
• In San Bernardino County, California, the October newsletter of the Chaffey Community Republican Women, Federated, showed Obama's face on a phoney $10 government food stamp coupon adorned with a watermelon, ribs and a bucket of fried chicken. Diane Fedele, president of the group, apologised and she had no racist intent: "It was just food to me. It didn't mean anything else." The state GOP denounced the newsletter.
• In Nevada, Colorado and Michigan, TV ads show a clip of [the Rev Jeremiah] Wright declaring "God damn America!" in a sermon. "How can we forget these hateful sermons from Obama's pastor for over 20 years?" says one ad by the Our Country Deserves Better PAC, a Sacramento, California-based group that was formed to campaign against Obama.
• In Danville, Virginia, The Voice, a local newspaper, published a column by McCain's Buchanan County campaign chairman, Bobby May, that mocked an Obama administration. It said he would change the national anthem to the "Black National Anthem" while mandating that churches teach black liberation theology. Also, it said Obama would appoint Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson to the Cabinet and put prominent blacks like Oprah Winfrey on currency. McCain's campaign dropped May from his job.
• In West Plains, Missouri, a remote town of 10,000 people near the Arkansas border, a prominent highway sign by an unknown creator shows a turban-wearing cartoon caricature of Obama, with an exaggerated smile, full lips and oversized teeth. It says: "Barack 'Hussein' Obama equals more abortions, same-sex marriages, taxes, gun regulations."
So what do we have here? One unknown group in Sacramento has run some ads reminding voters that Obama's decades-long pastor and spiritual adviser is pretty radical. The fact that Wright is black doesn't make that a racist argument. If McCain had sat in the pew for 20 years listening to a pastor who said, say, that "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians are responsible for the 9/11 attacks because they caused God to withdraw his protection for America," you can bet that would be an issue.
Otherwise, the AP has found three individuals in remote towns who have directed racial slurs at the first black candidate with a real chance to be president. That's pretty remarkable. We've made great progress since the civil rights revolution, but who would have guessed there'd be so little backlash?
That won't stop journalists from looking for it, though. Google "Obama racism", and you'll find hits like "Racism is the only reason Obama might lose" (because of course the most liberal Democrat in the Senate would be a shoo-in otherwise) and "Racist attacks on Obama growing more heated" (yes, on white supremacist and neo-Nazi websites) and "Racist Obama effigy hung in Ohio" (yes, one guy in rural Ohio hung a white-sheeted ghost labelled "Obama" in his yard, and his white neighbours are appalled).
On the web Sunday we got the headline "'Socialist', 'Muslim' – Ugly reception for Obama", who campaigned in the Cape Fear BBQ and Chicken in Fayetteville, North Carolina. But in fact it appears that there was just one woman who shouted "socialist" at him and also told a reporter that she suspected he was a "closet Muslim". The other white diners told her to quiet down and be civil. Reporters descended on her, though, and she did manage to direct a slur at General Colin Powell, who had endorsed Obama that morning: She called him "a Rino, R-I-N-O, Republican In Name Only".
Compared to the level of open anti-Catholic bias against John Kennedy in 1960, racism in the 2008 campaign is a dog that didn't bark.
The potential vice-presidential candidate supports liberal economic policies because of his Scots-Irish heritage
Richard Just at the New Republic magazine is not impressed with Virginia senator Jim Webb as a running mate for Barack Obama. Webb is fundamentally illiberal, he writes, a misogynist and an ethnic nationalist and "something of an apologist for the Confederacy." So why do lots of liberals like Webb, Just asks. "In the years since he left the Republican party, Webb has found his way to certain policy stands that liberals correctly find attractive. He was right about Iraq, and, on economics, he is right to criticise the disparity between rich and poor." Just can't figure out how a fundamentally illiberal Scots-Irish nationalist can arrive at all those good liberal tax-hiking, big-spending, trade-restricting positions that "liberals" like.
But in fact Webb's liberal positions on economic issues stem directly from his self-image as an oppressed working-class white man. When I read his book Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, I was struck by how it burned with a passionate hatred of the English in both England and America, who in Webb's view had been keeping his people down for hundreds of years. Throughout the book he complains about "the Wasp hierarchy" and the "Cavalier aristocracy" from which the hard-working Scots-Irish have been systematically excluded. Just notes that too: "Perhaps the most unappealing thing about Webb's worldview is that it seems to be built largely on resentment. In his book Born Fighting, you can practically feel the resentment coming off the page."
Webb complains that affirmative action "focused only on the disadvantages that had accrued to blacks," while "the white cultures whose ancestors had gained the least benefit from the elitist social structure" were "grouped together with the veneer that had formed the aristocracy." Webb points out that in a landmark 1974 study from the National Opinion Research Centre, family incomes among different white ethnic groups varied far more than the black-white differential. White Protestants other than Episcopalians were at the bottom of the income rankings. White Baptists had an educational level at the same level as black Americans and far below that of Jews. A later NORC study, he went on to write, showed that as late as 2000 white Baptists and "Irish Protestants" had less educational attainment than the national average.
And the whole tone of Webb's discussion is not "Maybe we should have done less fighting and drinking and more reading." Rather, it's: "The English have kept us down." His complaint about affirmative action is not that blacks (and other racial minorities) get it. It's that his people don't.
In a Wall Street Journal column just after his election to the Senate, Webb applied his identity-based politics to current political issues. He complained about "our society's steady drift toward a class-based system," in which the rich make millions while workers face "stagnant wages and disappearing jobs" in an era of globalisation. In his campaign he called for ensuring that "free trade becomes fair trade."
Jim Webb supports Richard Just's economic policies because he is a burning mass of ethnic resentment. Maybe liberals should worry about that.