McCain’s race card

August 7, 2008

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor looks at John McCain’s record of racism--and why the Obama campaign isn't responding to his latest accusations with more of a fight.

IT IS an old childhood adage that "it takes one to know one," but what phrase better describes John McCain when it comes to the political art of "playing the race card"?

At the end of July, McCain accused the Obama campaign of playing the dreaded "race card" because Obama rightfully explained that from here on out the McCain campaign plans to make white voters fear a United States with BARACK HUSSEIN OBAMA at its helm as president.

In response, the McCain campaign quickly sprang into action denouncing Obama for introducing "race" into the campaign. It is a ridiculous charge, since most progressives have consistently grimaced at the Obama's campaign unwillingness to engage in a real debate about the persisting manifestations of racism in the United States. Nevertheless, John McCain would know a thing or two about the cynical injection of race into politics, since race baiting has been a staple of his decades long career as a U.S. senator.

In 1983, McCain tried to shore up his right-wing credentials in Arizona (home state of the right-wing loon, former Senator Barry Goldwater) by voting against a bill to establish a national holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Last January in Memphis, Tenn., when McCain's campaign was going nowhere fast and while standing in front of the King Civil Rights Museum, McCain claimed to deeply "regret" his vote. But his apologies today do not adequately explain his determined opposition to the King bill.

John McCain meeting with Ronald Reagan
John McCain meeting with Ronald Reagan (Carol M. Highsmith)

In 1987, four years after his original vote to prevent the King holiday, McCain backed the governor of Arizona's bizarre and unprecedented attempt to rescind the King holiday as a state holiday. The governor claimed that the holiday was an imposition and an assault on state's rights. McCain said he thought that Arizona governor Evan Mecham, "was correct in rescinding the holiday."

Between 1985 and 1986, in the midst of the international movement to break apartheid in South Africa, John McCain voted no less than six times to oppose the levying of sanctions against the racist, white South African regime.

BUT JOHN McCain's turn to racism has always been conditional based on larger political objectives. When he needed to tack right to sate the Goldwater conservatives in Arizona, he supported business with apartheid and rejected a holiday for MLK. When right-wingers decided he was not conservative enough and ran against him, he skulked to the center and began his makeover as a "maverick."

In 1992, when McCain finally came around to the idea of supporting the King holiday in Arizona, it was while he was being investigated for his involvement with the enormous savings and loan scandal of the 1980s and 1990s.

When McCain was running for the Republican nomination for president in 1999 against George W. Bush, McCain pledged his support for the Confederate flag, making the absurd argument, "To me personally, I understand how it could be offensive to some people, but I had ancestors who fought in the Confederate army and I thought they fought honorably."

But once McCain left South Carolina and wanted to resume his moderate, "maverick" motif, he claimed just two months later, "the Confederate flag is offensive in many, many ways, as we all know. It's a symbol of racism and slavery." By 2006, McCain finally confessed the real reason for his equivocation on the old Confederacy, in a moment of shocking honesty for an American politician:

I feared that if I answered honestly, I could not win the South Carolina primary, so I chose to compromise my principles. I broke my promise to always tell the truth...The flag in South Carolina, I said that that was a state issue [in 2000]. It's not a state issue. It's a symbol that should not fly over the state capitol anywhere in America...I said that it really wasn't any of my business, was basically what I said. That was an act of cowardice.

In other words, McCain was willing to appeal to racism, and in fact, stir up racism, to get ahead politically.

BUT WE need not scour the annals of McCain's history in the Senate to find the senator's willingness to tap into racism to further his political agenda. At the end of this past July, McCain, out of the blue, declared his support for a ballot initiative in Arizona to ban affirmative action. Yet, in 1998, McCain declared a similar ballot initiative as "divisive" and refused to support it.

What's changed? McCain's dawdling presidential campaign, which was going nowhere fast until he and his team decided to slink into the political gutter. They emerged with a strategy to question Obama's abilities, his temerity, and the sheer audacity of this Black man to command an audience of 200,000 in Europe while old man McCain was left back here in the states unable to stir up the least bit of interest in his boring and irrelevant campaign.

When in doubt, play the race card. It has been a staple of American politics since African Americans could vote, most successfully since the invocation of the so-called "Southern strategy" employed by the likes of Richard Nixon and then Ronald Reagan.

The Black political movements of the 1960s and 1970s made it impossible for politicians to be brazenly racist, and so different racial monikers and codes were developed to implicate African Americans without mentioning them by name. Richard Nixon implored the rights of the "silent majority"--as opposed to the vocal minorities demanding civil rights. Ronald Reagan created myths and lies about "welfare queens," law and order, and demanded a war on drugs. All of these inferences and many others were meant to tap into the insecurities and racism of whites, without being accused of racism.

While this strategy has worked in the past, the sustained success of Barack Obama's campaign to date is a striking indication of how different things are today. The vast majority of people say they are ready to vote for an African American for president.

Yet Obama has been unwilling to directly challenge McCain's racism for fear of being labeled as a "Black candidate." In American politics this, apparently, is pejorative. In fact, Obama contributes to the uneasiness of an open discussion about race and racism in American society when he refuses to directly address and disparage McCain's new strategy of not-so-subtle race-baiting.

Moreover, since Obama's ground-breaking speech on racism in American society last spring, where he acknowledged the history of racist injustice directed at African Americans, he has refused to touch the issue--except to engage in many of the same kinds of stereotypical and one-sided depictions of Black men as irresponsible, dead-beat dads, and poor Black families as dysfunctional.

In fact, a real discussion about racism in this country would lead into a more general discussion about the tough conditions facing all workers right now. The greatest issues affecting African Americans are only a magnification of the crisis spurred on by the unraveling economy. Home foreclosures, lack of access to health care, skyrocketing inflation in food, fuel and rents, and so on, are affecting the African American community disproportionately.

These factors, combined with the injustice of a criminal justice system that targets African Americans, is what a real discussion about racism should reflect and could be a real basis for defining what "what unites us, as opposed to what divides us," as Obama is fond of saying. And just the opposite is true as well. As long as Obama runs from race and runs from calling out McCain's strategy of race-baiting, he gives life to the McCain campaign in a political moment when racism and scapegoating can easily become an explanation for the hard times American workers are struggling with right now.

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