U.S. Intellectual History Blog

More on race, Obama, and the Republican electoral strategy

The issue of whether or not Republican attacks on Obama have been motivated by racism has been a frequent theme on this blog, as has the wider issue of the connection of conservatism to racial backlash. So I was pretty interested in Matt Bai’s take on what promises to be a campaign issue in 2012. He writes:

“Is there a racial element to some of the attacks on President Obama? It’s pretty hard to argue there isn’t, when a conservative writer like Dinesh D’Souza argues that Mr. Obama sees the world like an African nationalist (a theory Mr. Gingrich praised again in his interview Sunday), or when Donald J. Trump asserts that Mr. Obama isn’t smart enough to have gotten into Harvard or to have written his own books. But here’s the thing: race and cultural otherness were powerful undercurrents in Republican politics long before the nation’s first black president came along. . . . So to say that Mr. Obama is being cast as somehow alien to the white American experience simply because he is black really does miss the point. He would still be cast in this way if he were an urban, northern Democrat who happened to be white.

Bai goes on the point out that the triumph of anti-racism after the civil rights movement has both moderated and coded Republican politics to the point that Republicans have to be very careful in using race at all. In a certain sense, he seems to be supporting the contention of Lee Atwater, who said of conservative electoral strategies concerning race:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

As Bai explains, the coding of race, and the stigmatization of racism, has made it difficult for Republicans to appeal to race in any too obvious way in criticizing Obama. And that Obama is black has, paradoxically, made the use of white racist arguments in conservative politics even more tricky than it would have been if Obama were white.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I’m skeptical of Bai’s argument that Obama would be attacked “in the same way” if he were white. Stereotypes resonate precisely because they receive different interpretations depending on context. Calling J.P. Morgan “greedy” or “grasping” doesn’t have the same impact as the same word would have if applied to Baron Rothschild.

    Republicans would certainly accuse any Democratic president of being “other”, someone not “really” American. But they would have to do it in very different ways than they’ve done so far with Obama, and the effectiveness of the attacks would be far less certain.

  2. Bai does not appear to be questioning the impact of the attacks he is noting that the attacks are consistent with ones made against Bill Clinton (the last Democrat to be elected president) and to a lesser degree John Kerry and Al Gore.

    I would agree that these attacks appear to carry more weight with Obama, in part because he is African American and in part because of his name. If his name were James Smith I think the whole Kenyan birth argument would not have gotten as far. But let’s not forget the campaign to make John Kerry French.

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