Friday, March 21, 2008


Only three days after Barack Obama's landmark speech on race in American culture, I'm driving home from work. Defensive driver that I am, I scan the driveway to my left that enters the road from my local shopping center. That's when I see him -- a man affixing two Confederate flags to his car. This in Pennsylvania, not all that far from the Gettysburg battlefield, not all that far from a station of the underground railroad, an earlier Pennsylvanian response to the traumas of American race.

On Tuesday, Obama held up two options for America in the remaining campaign season. We can continue to roil in the politics of race as spectacle, or we can begin to have the long overdue adult conversation about race that seems to have been held in abeyance ever since the highpoint of Lincoln's second inaugural address.

From what I see on my television, we have opted for the politics of race as spectacle.

In the continuing odd marriage between the inane right and the Clintonistas, the likes of Joe Scarborough, Patrick Buchanan and Lanny Davis have come completely unhinged in their shrieking and shredding attacks on Obama.

Lanny Davis asks hysterically, "If a white minister preached sermons to his congregation and had used the "N" word and used rhetoric and words similar to members of the KKK, would you support a Democratic presidential candidate who decided to continue to be a member of that congregation?"

I'm always amazed when prominent spokespersons so profoundly misconstrue things that are even at that moment widely circulating, and thus easily consulted, and yet, given the frequency with which this occurs in politics today, it must have shown itself to be a technique with real efficacy. What anybody who has seen any of the endless replays of Wirght's sermons knows is that the Reverend's use of the "N" word was centered in the claim that nobody had ever applied it to Hillary Clinton.

Now, I don't know anything about the truth value of Rev. Wright's comment. For all I know, given the frequency with which Bill Clinton is called our first black president, and given the rabid hatred of Hillary Clinton on the right, it could well be the case that somebody somehwere has called Clinton by the "N" word.

But what I do know for a certainty is that nobody would fault any white minister for using the "N" word in a way identical to Wright's rhetorical gesture. Would Lanny Davis have us believe that somebody would be called a racist for claiming that Hillary had not been called by the "N" word?

But Davis is simply playing on the well worn practice on the right of portraying black peopple as the real racists, and his ploy appears to be working even with many people who have seen the clips of Rev. Wright and know what he in fact said.

Similarly, Scarborough and Buchanan have been on program after program asserting that Wright's comments were anti-white racism. Scarborough simultaneously praises Obama's speech and says, "I'm not buying it." Alongside Buchanan, he argues endlessly that it is simply unthinkable that Obama wouldn't have immediately severed all ties to both the minister who made these remarks and the church in which he made them.

Which raises, at least in my mind, the question of how Scarborough and Buchanan might have handled similar situations in their own past. We don't have far to look.

Joe Scarborough represented Michael F. Griffin in pretrial court apperances. Griffin, you may recall, was the "Christian" terrorist who shot and killed a medical doctor as a means of advancing his "pro-life" agenda. As reported in the NEW YORK TIMES at the time, Scarborough's explanation was that the Griffins were family friends.

Got that? Barack Obama should have left the church family he had found in Chicago in protest of remarks that Rev. Wright made in his sermons. But family friendship meant that Scarborough should appear as the legal representative of a man who had murdered a doctor for ideological motives.

Buchanan, of course, neither denounced nor rejected Richard Nixon even after tapes were released documenting Nixon's routine statements of racism far beyond even what Buchanan and company accuse Obama of having countenanced in Wright. Buchanan neither denounced nor rejected Ronald Reagan after Reagan fabricated stories about welfare cadillac queens. Buchanan, so far as I have been able to determine, never denounced or rejected any who had practiced segregation in Washington as he was growing up there.

And, to nobody's surprise, neither Scarborough nor Buchanan has applied the same strict renunciation standard to any Republican candidates. Jerry Falwell, who for years preached from the pulpit to his Virginia congregation that racial segregation was God's will, joined Pat Robertson just days after 9/11 to insist that God had in fact damned America for its sinful ways. Davis, Scarborough and Buchanan condemn Obama for not cutting off all contact with Rev. Wright after he had "damned" America, but they have been loath to make the same call upon those Republicans who have repeatedly sought the embrace of Falwell and Robertson. A stop at Bob Jones University, which till recently practiced racist division of its students' social lives, has been a virtual requirement of all Republican candidates during the South Carolina primaries, again without meeting anything like the level of outrage Scarborough and Buchanan have unleashed on Obama.

It will little avail you to bring any of this up with these masters of communication, though. On the evidence of their recent television appearances, Scarborough will pronounce you "silly" and Buchanan will tell you to "shut up" [both happened on MSNBC within a week].

If we are to leave the spectacle of race behind and reclaim the moral high ground of Lincoln's second inaugural, we will first have to find some way to wrest the reins of discourse away from these media elites. We must, as the Pennsylvania Abolitionists of years past, take the reins in our own hands and steer a different course.


Aldon Lynn Nielsen said...

I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN -- within minutes of this posting it attracted a viciously racist comment -- the first that has ever come into this blog in the nearly two years of its existence -- I've seen enough of this around the net that I wasn't entirely surprised, but it is disheartening that the first response to a call for serious colloquy on matters of race coud have been submitted by that guy I saw putting the Confederate flags on his car --

tyrone said...

Great post, Aldon--and as for the deleted post you mentioned, at least people are once again showing their true colors (with apologies to Cindy Lauper)...Not since the O.J. trial and acquital has the spittle flown so fast and furious...Here in Ohio I;m often driving behind or next to Confederate-spangled pick-ups and jeeps, though rarely cars...


Jeff said...

The text of Lincoln's 2nd innaugural, which Aldon mentions, can be found at

Aldon -- What is your reading of that speech?

Thanks, Jeff Hansen