Obama's "Unimaginable Step" on Race vs. GOP's "Under Cover" Racism

According to the Times, any popular GOP position is a stand-in for racial animosity: "Race did not disappear entirely from presidential campaigns; it went under cover. It lay buried in code phrases like 'crime in the streets,' 'states' rights,' and 'welfare mothers.'"

The Times continues to glorify Barack Obama for the speech he delivered on race (delivered only because Obama was under pressure to explain his relationship with his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose fiery ravings garnered unwelcome attention). The Times is eager to help Obama not only move on from Wright, but actually to paint the whole affair in lambent tones.

The latest brushwork is on display on the front page of the Times' Sunday Week in Review, a story by Janny Scott, "Talk About Race."

Americans and their political leaders have been tongue-tied on the subject of race. We were reminded of that last week when Senator Barack Obama, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, took the almost unimaginable step of going before a national audience at a precarious juncture in a close campaign and speaking explicitly about what race means to blacks and whites. He spoke of black anger and white resentment and the significance of race in American history; his purpose was political but he spoke with seriousness and gravity and at length. Whether the speech helped or hurt him remains to be seen. But the moment was unlike virtually any in the more than 40 years since the triumphs of the civil rights struggle tore up party alignments of the past and tamped down explicit discussion of race by presidents and major-party candidates addressing the American people.

Scott implied an old liberal rationale for the success in presidential elections of Republicans (and Ronald Reagan in particular): Racism. Apparently, any popular GOP stand is simply a stand-in for bigotry.

Race did not disappear entirely from presidential campaigns; it went under cover. It lay buried in code phrases like "crime in the streets," "states' rights," and "welfare mothers." Michael Klarman, a professor at the University of Virginia Law School who specializes in the constitutional history of race, said, "Nixon talks about 'law and order,' which is a code term for the urban race riots and rising crime rates. He talks about appointing strict conservatives to the Supreme Court, which is a code term for justices who won't insist on mandatory busing. And he talks explicitly about how we ought to have 'local control of schools.' Without explicitly using the language of race, he is saying whites shouldn't have to go to school with blacks."

In 1980, Ronald Reagan, campaigning on a platform that included "states' rights," opened his general election campaign in Philadelphia, Miss. - a decision criticized because it was where three civil rights workers had been murdered in 1964.


Mr. Obama's approach was historical, personal and finally political. He traced the country's racial divide back to the Constitutional Convention, which the question of slavery brought to a stalemate "until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least 20 years." He said the answer to slavery lay in the Constitution's promise of liberty, justice and a union to be perfected over time. He said he had hoped his campaign would continue the progress of others toward a more just society. But it would not be possible to solve the challenges without understanding "that we may have different stories but we hold common hopes."

He told his own story, with its many narrative strands: son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas, raised in part by a grandfather who survived the Depression and served in Patton's Army, married to a black American "who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave owners." He asked white Americans to try to understand the humiliation, doubt and fear that Mr. Wright and members of his generation, who came of age in the 1950s and '60s, grew up with and still remember. And he asked black Americans to understand the experiences that have bred resentments over what whites saw as unfairly hurting them: busing, affirmative action, crime.

Do give Scott some credit, however, for quoting conservative black Shelby Steele

Whether voters buy into Mr. Obama's analysis and take up his invitation to move on may become apparent in the coming primaries in places like Pennsylvania. It remains to be seen whether he has nudged whites and African-Americans any closer to mutual understanding or simply stoked the anxieties and suspicions that helped close down the conversation before. Shelby Steele, a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of "A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win," called the speech "shallow, beautifully delivered and just disingenuous" - coming from Mr. Obama "who has been blessed with every manner of opportunity in this society." Mr. Wright's anger is demagoguery, said Mr. Steele, who like Mr. Obama is biracial. Racism "no longer remotely accounts for the difficulties in black America," Mr. Steele said. As for the lack of discourse about race, it is a product of political correctness, "the language of white guilt."