The McCain campaign, according to a recent New York Times editorial, is “race-baiting.” In the current New York Review of Books, author Andrew Delbanco agrees, saying that the campaign is using “whispers and winks” to fight a subtle racial campaign. Across the Web, bloggers are howling about the sly use of negative racial imagery. Columnist Frank Rich wrote last week that Republicans are “playing the race card” -- the evidence, he says, is unambiguous.
But is it really so unambiguous? Certainly John McCain’s campaign has turned increasingly ugly in recent weeks. His campaign has repeatedly accused Barack Obama of consorting with terrorists, and it has suggested that his connections to the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. and former Weather Underground leader William Ayers put him outside the political mainstream. “He doesn’t see America the way you and I do,” said Gov. Sarah Palin. He is “dangerous,” “risky” and “dishonorable,” according to the McCain campaign’s ads.
That’s pretty repugnant stuff. There’s no reason to believe that Obama’s politics are radical or fall outside the mainstream, or that he’s said or done anything unpatriotic, dishonorable or un-American. Multiple reports have discredited the suggestion that Obama has had a close relationship with Ayers.
But where’s the race-baiting? The New York Times editorial didn’t offer a single example of it. Delbanco says, among other things, that Republicans have “worked the theme” by attacking community organizers (who, he notes, generally do their organizing among poor people and blacks). Rich used as one of his key arguments the fact that Palin quoted in her convention speech from midcentury newspaper columnist Westbrook Pegler, who was known (back when he was known at all) as a racist and anti-Semite.
Others argue that the use (by surrogates) of Obama’s full name -- Barack Hussein Obama -- is a way of linking Obama to dark-skinned Arabs. Or that McCain’s reference to Obama as “that one” in the second debate was an effort to dehumanize his black opponent.
Columnist Bob Herbert said the McCain ad that used images of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears to mock Obama’s celebrity was “designed to exploit the hostility, anxiety and resentment of the many white Americans who are still freakishly hung up on the idea of black men rising above their station and becoming sexually involved with white women.”
These arguments are intriguing, and they’re lent a measure of credibility by the fact that race, in recent years, has been injected into American politics in subtle and nuanced ways. (Remember Willie Horton? And Jesse Helms’ infamous “Hands” ad?) What’s more, there’s social science research (described by John Judis in the New Republic recently) that suggests that whites -- like me -- are less attuned to these racial undertones and are more likely to deny them.
Still, I can’t help feeling that the examples this year are ambiguous. I’m not saying McCain is or isn’t a racist. How would I know what’s in his heart? But in a country whose racial history is as tragic and as raw as ours, these are serious charges that shouldn’t be thrown around lightly, the way Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) seemed to do last week when he irresponsibly compared McCain’s campaign to George Wallace’s.
If people are going to make charges of racism, they should back them up.
Nicholas Goldberg is editor of The Times’ Op-Ed and Sunday Opinion pages.