"C.H.A.N.G.E. -- Come Help A N----r Get Elected."

11/03/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A seventh grade civics teacher in Marianna, Florida decided to illustrate the concept of "change" by writing


on the white board in front of his class, the Tallahassee Democrat reports. The class had seventeen white students, six black students and one Asian.

It was, above all else, a stunning act of child abuse. All of those children will always remember having their trust in their teacher violated. How many nascent friendships in that class will shatter under the strain of that horrible act? Horrible. Let's hope some good ones will be formed out of it instead.

Since we can all agree that the teacher, Greg Howard, did something Very Bad, the more interesting question becomes why? What's the pathology of the crime?

Howard had to know that he was performing an extraordinarily destructive act -- self-destructive most of all. There was no way he was getting away with doing this. What motivated him?

I can only assume that he grew up in an environment in which racism was mother's milk. He'd been trying to keep all these pent up feelings of disgust at Barack Obama's candidacy inside and all of a sudden they just spilled out. So he flew his little kamikaze mission into the flight deck of the USS Racial Harmony.

Poor Greg Howard did his horrible thing and he will have to live with himself. But what about all the little Greg Howards out there? The ones who watch this story on TV and purse their lips and say, well, he shouldn't have done that to those kids but I don't think they should crucify the man for making a joke. The ones who have their outrage polarity reversed so its the reaction and not the action that is the problem.

The backdrop for this behavior is that racism in America has been largely driven underground. It is no longer socially acceptable to drop the n-word in conversation. Broadly generalizing about racial groups, once par for the course, is now frowned on. Yet there's still political value in exploiting simmering racial resentments, as Republican proto-Karl Rove political operative Lee Atwater famously explained:

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."

Lee Atwater became a literal death bed convert to tolerance, and, in that light, I feel like it is our moral obligation to reach those poor sinners and save them from the morass of their racism. I do.

The persistent Muslim/flag pin/Pledge of Allegiance/Michelle Obama whitey tape smears against Barack Obama are the "forced busing" and "welfare" of the 2008 campaign. So what do you do with those people? First of all, if you can email them, send them a link to this great video, featuring Richard Trumka, Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO and late of John Lewis' United Mine Workers (Thanks commenter sue30c), courtesy of Ta-Nehisi Coates:

Ta-Nehisi is worth a bookmark. He is always insightful and entertaining.

It strikes me that the way in which the right approaches terrorism and the left approaches racism are strikingly similar. Both take a hardline approach to the bad guys and view making subtle distinctions as appeasement.

The right sees the Arab and Muslim worlds as a huge monolith. It takes evidence such as Palestinians dancing in the street after 9-11 as proof that the entire Muslim world is consumed with a pathological hatred of the United States,which, sotto voce, justifies whatever action we take against them.

To the left, the reality is more complicated. There are the actual terrorists, who we must kill or imprison. Then there are the substantive supporters, whose financial and other forms of support must be disrupted. Then there are the great majority of Muslims and Arabs. They may be casual sympathizers or apathetic to the conflict. They can be brought around by good arguments and good actions.

As much as the left is capable of nuance on terror, it views the world of racism as being monolithic. The reality, again, is more complex. Hardcore racists must be dealt with harshly, but the vast majority of racially insensitive people are simply confused and misguided. They were raised wrongly, but apart from their pathology on race, they are not bad people.

We can and should appeal to the better angels of their nature. Some sneer at the "white guilt" that they suggest motivates support for Barack Obama. It certainly doesn't motivate anyone I know. But maybe we shouldn't run from that idea.

Barack Obama is a benediction for the country. He's a chance to say, yeah, we screwed up a lot, but we're looking forward rather than backwards. If some "guilty" whites want to vote for Obama on that basis, all I can say is: Welcome aboard.