No, It’s NOT Racial Code

I listen to political podcasts on my iPod when I’m on the treadmill. One of the ones I like is the Slate Political Gabfest, even though all three regular panelists are strong Obama supporters. (So is almost everyone at Slate — when they polled their staffers, the vote went 55-1 for Obama over McCain, with a couple of minor candidates.) I’m not on the same page politically with the Gabfesters, but they have intelligent lively conversations, and generally treat the opposition with respect.

Today, however, I almost fell off the treadmill at something the usually sensible John Dickerson said:

“A lot of voters… when you talk about experience with respect to Obama, that’s code for people’s continuing uncomfortableness about his race… a lot of times when people talk about worries about his experience, they’re really touching against their difficulty with the fact that he’s an African-American.” [about 9 minutes into the podcast]

Oh. My. God.

I thought we had reached the depths of strained attempts to play the race card a couple of weeks ago, when a Kansas City Star columnist opined that the term “socialist” is “an old code word for black.” As evidence for this, columnist Lewis Diuguid said J. Edgar Hoover had used the term to describe prominent black leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois. This ignores the fact that Hoover also referred to white socialists as “socialists,” that King (whom I admire) at least arguably was a socialist, and that Robeson and DuBois were admirers of Josef Stalin and, if anything, to the left of socialism.

But however misguided Diuguid’s argument might be, at least he advanced some reason for asserting that “socialism” is racial code. Dickerson offers no rationale whatsoever for the idea that “inexperience,” a major campaign theme raised by both Hillary Clinton and McCain for many months, all of a sudden has become racial code.

Here’s how to decipher the terms: “Socialism” is code for government redistribution of wealth, as in Obama’s stated desire to “spread the wealth around.” “Inexperience” is code for “not having much experience.” If political opponents criticize Obama for inexperience and leaning toward socialism, it’s because he’s a first-term Senator who has the most liberal voting record in the Senate, to the left of Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-identified democratic socialist.

The clash of ideas is the bedrock of our political system, and it ain’t always pretty. There have been 43 white Presidents, and every single one of them has had both strong supporters and harsh critics. If Obama becomes the first black President, it has to be possible to criticize him without having to defend against specious charges of racism.

8 thoughts on “No, It’s NOT Racial Code

  1. Hey, Kirk — I’m back (he groans). I agree with you and with Dickerson each 50/50. It is absolutely fair criticism (and not dog-whistling racial code) to call us liberals “socialists.” First, it refers to our political beliefs, which is where political discourse should be centered, IMHO. Second, from the world-view of many (not all) conservatives, my views ARE socialist. I’m not a stalinist, I’m not a communist. I do believe in progressive income taxes, social safety nets, etc., which could be described as socialism. Point, Kirk.

    Dickerson has a point buried in his comment as well, though. I haven’t listened to the podcast, but it sounds like it was very badly articulated. Here’s the point as I have observed it in republican talking points: The knock on Obama is not that giving tax dollars to large banks, partially nationalizing those institutions, is socialist (oh, yeah, that’s what the current Republican administration is doing). Its not an attack on the progressive income tax (oh, yeah, that won’t play really well when it seems to insulate many of the folks who got us into this economic mess). The socialist rap on Obama is “he will bring back welfare.”

    “Welfare,” in this country, is seen as a program that takes money from hard-working white people and gives it to (invariably black) welfare queens who have more babies so they can make payments on brightly colored cadillacs. Although the majority of welfare recipients have ALWAYS been white, that’s not what most conservative white people believe. That’s the racist dog whistle Dickerson (apparently inarticulately) was referring to. Point John.

    If Obama is president, his opponents must, absolutely, be able to criticize him without being accused of racism. However, where racist stereotypes underly such criticism, the opposition must expect the argument to include those underying sterotypes. I do NOT accuse you of racism. I DO accuse the RNC, playing on welfare as the basis for charges of socialism, to also be playing on racial stereotypes among many conservative voters.

  2. No groans here, Carol, I’m happy to have you as a correspondent.

    I see your point on welfare, but Dickerson wasn’t making a socialism point, he was saying that it’s racial code to criticize Obama as “inexperienced.”

    And as you point out, partly nationalizing the banks is a quintessentially socialist step. But there’s widespread agreement across the political spectrum that it was necessary, and I certainly believe it was. If the credit markets had remained frozen, it was only a matter of time before (for example) paychecks would start to bounce even at blue-chip companies. The ensuing panic would have crippled the American economy and, for that matter, the world economy.

  3. Oops. I hate getting on my high horse about the wrong issue — and it seems to be happening more frequently as I move through my fifth decade.

    You’re right — the “he’s inexperienced” charge is not racial dog-whistling. And as you have seen, I have a keen ear for dog-whistling. Sorry ’bout that.

    However, as we move towards a probable Obama victory (I’ll eat crow on Wed if need be), I think everyone better get ready for much discussion of dog-whistles. As a 50+, white, southern, history and political science buff, I offer my opinion that America has yet to get past its original sin: racism. We have come a long way, no lie. But we aren’t there yet. Fasten your seat belt, cause the next four years could be a bumpy (albeit interesting) ride.

  4. carol… I hate to break it to you, but if you’re 50+, you’re in your SIXTH decade. I’ve done the math because I’m there, too…

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