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The New York Sun


Race as a Sport

May 15, 2008

By John H. McWhorter

Let me get this straight. When Hillary Clinton says that a reason to vote for her is that her popularity with the white working class would make her a more viable opponent against John McCain, she's playing the race card. It's more of the dirty tricks that those Clintons are so reviled for.

Nonsense is the polite word for this; there are other worse ones. Senator Clinton's refusal to exit the race is distinctly unseemly, but this business of tarring her as socially undesirable for what she said is grievously unfair.

Racism, when referring to whites and blacks, is supposed to be about white people not liking black people. Or, these days we are encouraged to consider the broader operations of what is called institutional racism (or societal racism, white privilege, the unlevel playing field: take your pick) — certain ills disproportionately affect blacks as the result of inequities built in to the American modus operandi.

But lately, the new idea seems to be that one is a racist to even bring up race at all. Mrs. Clinton was making a simple statement of fact. What rankles many, it would seem, is that she brought up racism not to condemn it, but to argue that it is a mark against a black man's viability as a candidate for president.

In this, however, Mrs. Clinton was simply, as always, playing hardball. We are supposed to think of race as off limits even while playing hardball — but this is backward, sanctimonious, and weak. Insisting on a tacit taboo like this is no way to get past race, especially when the taboo will inevitably be violated regularly.

Yet the inevitable cutesy paraphrasings, such as "Don't vote for him — he's black!" are cast in a way that obscures Mrs. Clinton's argument and implies a simple anti-black bigotry. One almost senses, in these studied claims of racism still "lurking" behind every tree, a desire to find said racism. It is a sport.

For example, the racism that Mrs. Clinton was supposedly exploiting in her statement is most likely a fiction. The way journalists are eagerly seeking evidence in polling data that racism will be "a factor" in whether Mr. Obama gets elected is more sport.

Oh dear, one in five whites in West Virginia say race "mattered" in their choice, but that could mean any number of things, including a discomfort with the race-related issue of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. To be wary of Mr. Obama because Rev. Wright's rhetoric is, in my view, mistaken, but it is not an indication of not liking black people.

Or, a white person might be more inclined to vote for someone they sense as more like them in a birds-of-a-feather sense. This is no more "racism," as the term was once conventionally understood, than a black person moving to a new town and seeking people of color as new friends. The latter we call "diversity," but I guess working-class white people aren't allowed to be "diverse."

There are, of course, anecdotes of whites outright refusing to vote for Mr. Obama out of an animus toward black people. There are also people still using typewriters.

The question is whether these true racists show any sign of having a significant effect on the election. They do not, and as such, we need evince no more interest in these benighted holdout sorts than we do in typewriters. The person collecting typewriters in 2008 is likely engaging in a hobby. The person collecting anecdotes about racist voters in 2008 is engaged in something rather similar.

The simple belief that masses of whites not voting for Mr. Obama seems to make many of our noble warriors against racism uncomfortable. They seem unable to imagine that a white person might vote against Mr. Obama for any reason other than his color.

Surely they understand, logically, that Mrs. Clinton's focused attention on policy issues relevant to working people has a little something to do with her appeal in states like West Virginia. But a cognitive dissonance kicks in. The voters' embrace of Mrs. Clinton entails not voting for the dreamy Mr. Obama, and the sheer sight of whites not agog over the audacity of hope rubs Obama fans the wrong way.

Actually, it is they who are retrograde in this case. In their impulse to see not voting for Mr. Obama as a "racial" issue, they assume that his debate skills are less interesting than his color. They assume that his color is, in itself, an argument. They are making him into a thing rather than evaluating him according to the content of his character.

Trying to explain our "race issues" to a foreigner, you get a sense of how convoluted and self-medicating our discussions of race have become. A hundred years from now, scholars researching our race debate will compete to parse just why people were so offended over trivia and willful misinterpretations.

Yet in the end, the very fact that we can use racism as the basis for a sport shows how far we've really come.

Original Source:



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