The Consequences of Race History Ignorance on Our Politics

Several days ago, a pro-Republican blog made the following, outrageous comment:

Obama = Rascist?

…just wanted to get something off my chest. Obama is not black. He is MULATTO! By calling himself black, he is denying his Anglo heritage. Is he ashamed? Does he not want to admit that he was reared by “typical” white people. By disparaging his “white” heritage, he undermines both his candidacy and understanding of America…

I was barely able to contain myself when reading this. I wrote back, in part:

This is RIDICULOUS. In fact, some 65-75% of the nation’s 36 million African Americans have some “white blood” – including me. Are 27 million of us “bad” because we are “denying our Anglo heritage?”

The fact is, it is common practice, the expected practice in America for anyone with some African heritage to be considered “black.” And as stated earlier – this is a practice that white Americans instituted and ENFORCED. It’s called the ONE DROP RULE. So now we have a situation where Obama is being called racist for following an ongoing social custom that was instituted by and for the benefit of white Americans! I can’t think of anything more insane.

It is fair to say that, given cultural changes, perhaps a different approach should be taken. But this is a complex issue that anyone who is black or biracial could expand on at length… at much length. As such, it is outrageously unfair that you single out Obama as being “bad” for following a social custom that is practiced/accepted by millions. If you’re going to do a “call-out” on this, don’t do it as part of an attack on someone that you that obviously don’t like politically (because it looks like an ad hominem political attack); instead, address it as part of larger effort to deal with the problems in race relations in America. That would be fair.

I ended my comment by saying “this just looks like a case where you’re attacking (Obama) personally and simplistically over his racial identity, without really delving into the history and complexities of the subject.”

And I began thinking: if people don’t know about something as basic as the one drop rule for determining race, how much more is there that they don’t know? And how can they possibly make fair and educated judgments concerning the race issues involved in the candidacy of the first African American to be a major party’s nominee for president?

The answer is, they can’t. And this highlights a major problem in this country: our failure to properly and comprehensively teach racial history to our children, especially white children.

African American history, it seems, has become the province of a predominantly black group of scholars, some members of the educated class of blacks, and 28 or 29 days near the start of the year. That’s not good enough.

Yes, we all know that the country once practiced slavery and Jim Crow. We all know about Martin Luther King, Jr, his civil rights marches, and his assassination. But that ‘s barely sufficient to earn a “D” in racial history.

What is clearly lacking in white Americans especially is an awareness of the extent to which racism has disrupted the social fabric of both whites and blacks; and an understudying of just how racism is promoted in our society. (Some people have described the pitiful way we teach students about race as the “white-washing” of history.)

And this has consequences. It is clear that many whites don’t recognize how the media has been used, both overtly and subliminally, to create negative impressions of African Americans in the minds and emotions of whites. And that includes an inability to appreciate the context and nuances within which, for example, political attacks are made on Barack Obama. It is not surprising to me that Rasmussen reported this concerning recent TV ads from John McCain:

Sixty-nine percent (69%) of the nation’s voters say they’ve seen news coverage of the McCain campaign commercial that includes images of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton and suggests that Barack Obama is a celebrity just like them. Of those, just 22% say the ad was racist while 63% say it was not.

However, Obama’s comment that his Republican opponent will try to scare people because Obama does not look like all the other presidents on dollar bills was seen as racist by 53%. Thirty-eight percent (38%) disagree.

Not surprisingly, the McCain ad generates significantly different perceptions along racial and ethnic lines. Most African-American voters—58%–saw the McCain ad as racist. Just 18% of white voters and 14% of all other voters shared that view… As for Obama’s comment, 53% of white voters saw it as racist, as did 44% of African-Americans and 61% of all other voters.

Is the McCain campaign’s Britney/Paris ad racist? Not outwardly. But as Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo observed, “I note with interest today, John McCain’s new tactic of associating Barack Obama with oversexed and/or promiscuous young white women. (See today’s new ad and this from yesterday.) Presumably, a la Harold Ford 2006, this will be one of those strategies that will be a matter of deep dispute during the campaign and later treated as transparent and obvious once the campaign is concluded.”

The Harold Ford ad, you might recall, featured a blond woman who tantalizingly said “call me Harold.”

David Gergen, a pundit on ABC’s This Week, noted that a McCain ad which compared Obama to Moses in a Charlton Heston movie employed “coded messaging” to paint Barack Obama as “outside the mainstream” and “uppity.” Said Gergen

“There has been a very intentional effort to paint him as somebody outside the mainstream, other, ‘he’s not one of us,'” said Gergen, who has worked with White Houses, both Republican and Democrat, from Nixon to Clinton. “I think the McCain campaign has been scrupulous about not directly saying it, but it’s the subtext of this campaign. Everybody knows that. There are certain kinds of signals. As a native of the south, I can tell you, when you see this Charlton Heston ad, ‘The One,’ that’s code for, ‘he’s uppity, he ought to stay in his place.’ Everybody gets that who is from a southern background. We all understand that. When McCain comes out and starts talking about affirmative action, ‘I’m against quotas,’ we get what that’s about.”

(I would also note that the Moses ad also included some footage with Obama being interviewed by a blonde woman. Has the McCain campaign instituted a “blondes only” policy for women who appear prominently in anti-Obama commercials?)

Unfortunately, the subtle race baiting of these ads is lost on many of the people who view them. I am reminded that in 1955-the year I was born-a 14 year black boy old named Emmett Till was beaten to death in Mississippi for the “crime” of whistling at a white woman; and that the men who committed the crime were acquitted by an all-white jury. For many whites from that era, I don’t think the message will be considered subtle at all.

It would be great to see an educated electorate, consisting of many more folks like David Gergen and Josh Marshall, rise up and challenge the cynical use of imagery in the McCain ads. But many people – most people – just don’t get it. They are simply too ignorant concerning issues of race to see what’s happening. And that works to the detriment of Barack Obama.

All of which means that, no matter who wins the election this year, there is much work to be done regarding the way history is taught in our schools. We need to take an active interest in this subject, and make sure that the narrative concerning race is not being white-washed in black inner cities or in lily-white suburbs. The consequences of not doing so-a citizenry that is unable to recognize the contemptible nature of ads like those coming from the McCain campaign-are too dangerous for us to accept.

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2 thoughts on “The Consequences of Race History Ignorance on Our Politics

  1. I literally wrote a blog last week called “Yogi Berra was right when he said…”, saying the exact same thing. I am glad to find like-minded writers on wordpress.com…

  2. I’ve certainly experienced plenty of this in my classes. Very few students, white or black, have even the most rudimentary knowledge of black history. It’s simply not taught in most public schools (and probably fewer private schools). Outside of MLK and Brown v. Board most are clueless on the subject.

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