Is the racist smear campaign working?

John McCain and Sarah Palin haven't succeeded in shifting a majority of people in their favor with racist attacks on Barack Obama.

THIS YEAR, I'm guessing a lot of people are going to dress up as John McCain or Sarah Palin for Halloween.

Columnist: Brian Jones

Brian Jones Brian Jones is a teacher, actor and activist in New York City. He is featured in the new film The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman, and his commentary and writing has appeared on MSNBC.com, the Huffington Post, GritTV and the International Socialist Review. Jones has also lent his voice to several audiobooks, including Howard Zinn's one-man play Marx in Soho, Wallace Shawn's Essays and Noam Chomsky's Hopes and Prospects.

If you've seen the videos of McCain/Palin rallies, you know what's so scary about them. You've seen people call Obama a terrorist or express fear that he's an Arab--or worse, a secret Muslim! You've seen the person carrying a Curious George doll with a hat that says "Obama." Yes, a stuffed monkey labeled "Obama."

In other words, you've been transported, via YouTube, into a world of hard-core racists--people who are just seething at the possibility that someone who isn't white might be the next president. And worst of all, some of those crowds look pretty big.

A lot of people I've talked to over the past few weeks are drawing the same conclusion: McCain and Palin's turn towards a racist smear campaign is working. My friends and colleagues are looking at these videos and thinking: "That's what most of America is like."

Four things (at least!) need to be said about this.

First, these rallies are extremely scary, and people are right to be frightened by them. McCain and Palin are clearly tapping into an audience that is ready to blame Arabs, Muslims, Blacks, immigrants or any "other" for the economic crisis. Georgia Rep. John Lewis was dead right: the Republicans are appealing to a racist minority that has a history of putting their despicable ideas into action--violent action.

But the second--and often overlooked--point is that while the McCain-Palin smear campaign galvanized a hard-core racist base, it has also provoked a backlash in the country as a whole.

A recent New York Times/CBS News poll found that six out of ten voters thought McCain was spending more time attacking Obama than explaining his own ideas. It also found that Obama had opened up a huge lead on McCain (53 percent to 39 percent, "if the election were held today"), and that voters who recently changed their minds about McCain were three times more likely to have developed a more negative view of him.

"The top reasons cited by those who said they thought less of Mr. McCain," the Times reported, "were his recent attacks and his choice of Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate."

The same poll found "for the first time, that white voters are just about evenly divided between Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama, who, if elected, would be the first Black president," the Times article said. "The poll found that Mr. Obama is supported by 45 percent of white voters--a greater percentage than has voted for Democrats in recent presidential elections, according to exit polls."

Interestingly, a crowd of mostly white hockey fans booed Palin, the self-described "ultimate hockey mom," at an NHL game in Philadelphia. This wonderful event may not be based on the most scientific sampling, but it's the kind of thing to keep in mind when people around us are falling back on the idea that the American population is hopelessly racist.

McCain and Palin have not succeeded in shifting the population in their favor with racist attacks on Obama. That is extremely good news for those who aspire to build a broad movement against racism in this country.

I'm not sure which is more frightening, though: watching McCain and Palin whip a crowd into a patriotic, anti-Obama frenzy with racist code words, or watching McCain try to backpedal when audience members drop the code and speak in plain language?

McCain has a TV ad where the word "DANGEROUS" appears in large letters by Obama's face. But in Minneapolis, he was clearly embarrassed by a supporter who admitted to being "afraid" of Obama. McCain quickly said: "He is a decent person." At that point, the audience began booing. McCain continued, "And a person that you do not have to be scared of as the president of the United States." McCain apparently wants to have his smear campaign cake, and deny it, too.

He took questions at a rally in Minnesota, which led to an even worse exchange:

WOMAN: "I can't trust Obama. I've heard about him. He's not, he's not... He's an Arab."

MCCAIN: "No ma'am. He's a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that's what this campaign is all about."

That's not a typo.

Third point: Since when is "decent family man" the opposite of "Arab"? John McCain can profess all of the respect in the world for John Lewis and the civil rights movement, but he doesn't feel the need to pay any respect to Arabs.

That's one of the things that that the civil rights movement won, by the way--politicians are definitely not allowed to be openly racist against African Americans anymore. Unfortunately, it's still okay in American politics to say profoundly racist things against Arabs and Muslims.

To my knowledge, neither of the candidates has come out and said that there's nothing wrong with being Arab or Muslim. Neither of the candidates (to my knowledge) has appeared at a mosque. Shamefully, last June, Obama's campaign even barred two Muslim women wearing headscarves from sitting in the area behind Obama's podium at a campaign event in Detroit.

And that leads to the fourth and final point: Obama's campaign is more about capitalizing on the sea change in American attitudes about race than it is about challenging the racism that continues to exist.

The high-water mark on that score was Obama's speech about racism in March, after the media first began whipping up a controversy about Obama's pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. It was the best I've ever heard from a politician, but it was a speech he did everything to avoid giving.

Hillary Clinton had attempted to use his relationship with Wright to paint Obama as an "angry Negro." Faced with the threat that Clinton could pull white voters away from him, Obama took up his and Wright's views on race in a more straightforward manner. Unfortunately, when the hysteria about Wright reared its head again, in early May, Obama backed away from the content of his earlier speech and renounced Wright.

Many progressives are deeply proud of the fact that Obama is African-American. But is his campaign a vehicle for progressive, anti-racist ideals?

The New York Times has reported several times on the experiences of people campaigning for Obama and how they respond to racism from voters. One volunteer wrote:

I'm canvassing for Obama. If this issue comes up, even if obliquely, I emphasize that Obama is from a multiracial background, and that his father was an African intellectual, not an American from the inner city. I explain that Obama has never aligned himself solely with African-American interests--not on any issue--but rather has always sought to find a middle ground.

Another, when confronted by a woman who expressed fear that she couldn't trust Black people, said: "One thing you have to remember is that Obama, he's half white, and he was raised by his white mother. So his views are more white than Black really."

The point isn't to lay the tactics of random volunteers at the feet of Obama. The point is that we can't rely on the Obama campaign to be a vehicle for anti-racist activism. Election campaigns, by their nature, are a low form of political activity. Whatever the views of the participants, the priority inevitably becomes getting votes, not changing ideas or policies or institutions.

A co-worker of mine who is campaigning for Obama on her lunch hours thinks that the campaign will help to create a network of people who care about social change and want to stay active after the election. I hope she's right.

Whether she is or not, though, we need an anti-racist movement of the civil rights variety, badly. We're going into a painful recession with relatively weak unions, and relatively weak community organizations. Politics, as the saying goes, abhors a vacuum. It's likely that there will be a right-wing element that attempts to speak to people's real pain, and point it in a racist direction.

But no matter how scary the Republican right gets, we shouldn't expect Democratic politicians to squarely take on racism. That's the job of an independent movement, and there's never been a more urgent time to start building one.