Politics, in Ebony and Ivory

11/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A couple of weeks ago I sat in a library at New York University's Tisch School audibly gnashing my teeth. It's a small space, so the sound filled the room. Two colleagues eyed me curiously as I babbled to myself. I was struggling to write about the He-said/He-said that exploded following Congressman Joe Wilson's public belching of the phrase "you lie" at President Barack Obama as he addressed Congress -- and the nation.

Former president Jimmy Carter tackled the context of Wilson's outburst head on. "I think an overwhelming portion of the intentionally demonstrated animosity against President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he's African American," Carter said on NBC.

Carter was hit with a blast of naysaying and ridicule from the right--and by talking heads/typing fingers in the major media. The firestorm forced President Obama to wade into the controversy and distance himself from Carter. It's a commonplace that Social Security is the third rail of politics. For the first black president, however, it's clearly race.

The tumult has subsided a bit, but it will surely surface again--matters of race, particularly the bitterness that swirls around unresolved black-white issues, have a uranium-like half-life. They smolder and radiate but never disappear.

Currently, Fox News, right-wing websites like, and the usual suspects on talk radio, amplify and fuel the race baiting of segments of the Obama opposition. No surprise: Roger Ailes, Fox News's founder and domestic president, refined such divide-and-conquer tactics in the Nixon White House.

The rightwing media's strategy and its tactics, techniques, and procedures--"TTP" in militaryspeak, for this has been an ideological blitzkrieg against reason--have pulled national discourse so far toward their side that the "center" is effectively in their territory. They whip up controversies and turn them into the story, to the point that major news media feel they must also cover the smoke rather than the fire. (Two words: Hurricane Katrina.)

Getting to the root of tough issues like race is like serving tofu and leafy greens at your barbecue when the folks next door are grilling up all-you-can-eat ribs and burgers. Nutritious and fact-rich journalism loses you viewers, those potential consumers who advertisers love, or so the logic of the corporate newsroom goes. Better to throw a porkfest. Which means: America can't hold a sustained and deep discussion about race in the current media environment without it getting diverted and destroyed.

"Why don't you write about that?" suggested Derrick Biney-Amissah, an artist and NYU employee whose peace I disrupted in the tiny library.

So how has the Wilson/Obama/Carter/racism brouhaha played out in the major media?

Candy Crowley and Ed Hornick quoted former White House adviser David Gergen in a piece: "I think it's indeed a libel upon many of the opponents, most of the opponents of health care reform, to say that they're racist," he said. "Seven previous presidents have tried to bring health care reforms of this kind. All seven have failed. And, as I recall, all seven were white."

Not so fast, Mr. Gergen.

"The opposition is about policy and profits, but the frames, the tone, and the strategies of that opposition are always unique to the opponent. When the Clintons introduced health care reform they were not called Witch Doctors or monkeys," Melissa Harris-Lacewell writes in The Nation. "Racialized language and images are used to help frame arguments against Obama in particular." (Harris-Lacewell notes that folks on the other side of the aisle have dabbled in coded, race-based appeals, too, in her piece, "I'm Not a Racist... I'm a Democrat.")

New York Times columnist David Brooks describes an abortive jog he took in Washington, DC, only to be captivated by the sight of anti-Obama protesters mingling with black folks at another event.

"Well, I don't have a machine for peering into the souls of Obama's critics, so I can't measure how much racism is in there. But my impression is that race is largely beside the point. There are other, equally important strains in American history that are far more germane to the current conflicts." That's about as anecdotal as you can get--as if a little interracial mingling is reason enough to go all "Ebony and Ivory" on one's readers.

Generally speaking, Brooks has a kind of purposeful myopia when it comes to race. In a November 2007 column titled "History and Calumny," Brooks claimed that the decision to kick off Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign in Neshoba County, Mississippi, where three young civil rights workers were assassinated, was not a "signal to white racists that he was on their side." "The truth is more complicated," Brooks asserted. Reagan spoke to black audiences on the same trip, too.

Others from his own publication begged to differ, strenuously, the next day: "When he went to Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1980, the town where the civil rights workers had been murdered, and declared that 'I believe in states' rights,' he didn't mean to signal support for white racists. It was all just an innocent mistake," Paul Krugman fired back in his New York Times blog.

"When he went on about the welfare queen driving her Cadillac, and kept repeating the story years after it had been debunked, some people thought he was engaging in race-baiting. But it was all just an innocent mistake."

"It was clear from other episodes in that campaign that Reagan was content to let southern Republicans link him to segregationist politics in the South's recent past," Joseph Crespino wrote in his 2007 book In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution. "Reagan's states' rights line was prepared beforehand and reporters covering the event could not recall him using the term before the Neshoba County appearance."

So much for Brooks.

So, is the current opposition to President Obama's policies motivated by racial bias or simply a distaste for his brand of health care reform? And if race isn't the primary factor, does that justify sweeping under the rug any consideration of racial prejudice within the anti-health care reform and birther movements, as many in the major news media are doing?

President Obama has been called a "socialist," "Nazi", "racist," not a few times, but widely and repeatedly. Glenn Beck raises the specter of "reparations" and claims the president is attempting to settle "old racial scores through new social justice," an absurd accusation given Obama's demonstrated "post-racial" approach to public policy. At a recent town hall meeting hosted by Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, a WWII vet named Tom Eisenhower said President Obama "is acting like a little Hitler" and added, "I'll take a gun to Washington if enough of you would go with me." Grassley stood right next to him and offered nothing more than verbal waffling. He didn't repudiate Eisenhower's language of violence; Grassley didn't even acknowledge it.

Language matters. It unites and it divides. It has been deployed consistently and skillfully by those seeking to prevent and destroy one of the most promising potential coalitions in America, the alliance between working-class whites and blacks. It reaches farther back than Nixon's "southern strategy" to sour southern whites on the Democratic Party. During post-Civil War Reconstruction, when the Democrats were on the side of former slave owners, a language of division was introduced to appeal to whites who were frightened that the newly emancipated slaves would take away what little they had.

Reconstruction, old-time Democrats argued, meant "Negro rule" and "the menace of Negro domination," a bogeyman invoked by John B. Knox, president of Alabama's Constitutional Convention, to justify, in his words, "whatever manipulation of the ballot that has occurred in this State." And of course, they always had the N word--and the Klan--to put the new black citizens back in their place.

"By 1968 you can't say 'nigger'--that hurts you. Backfires," Republican strategist Lee Atwater remarked in a 1981 interview, quoted years later by Bob Herbert in his New York Times column. "So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff."

Reagan and his spinmeisters, and their ideological confreres, learned these lessons well and applied them to their task of "taking back America," first by using language, then policy, to delegitimize the transformative forces in society that gave birth to the civil rights movement. Social justice was simply swept off the agenda. "Economic justice" meant privatization and "trickle-down economics." During the Reagan and Bush years, "notions of commonwealth, civic purpose and fairness [were] crowded out of the public debate," former Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips wrote in a July 2002 New York Times op-ed.

In effect, Reagan's "morning in America" meant blanket absolution for all the wrongs and inequities visited on the least among us, including, but not limited to, people of color. It represented an abdication of any national responsibility to address them. The goal: keep working-class whites in the fold and maintain the racial divide so carefully dug by rightwing ideologues and Republican operatives. Obama's campaign and his presidency--his very person--threaten to bridge that divide.

The right-wing media's latest triumph and indirect attack on Obama--recall the sneers from the right at candidate Obama's "community organizer" credentials-- was to incite Congress to ram home the "Defund ACORN Act of 2009." The act would strip Federal funds from any organization indicted for violating campaign finance laws or filing fraudulent forms with any state or Federal agency.

Ostensibly, the legislation is a response to an undercover video shot by a young far-right activist that purports to show ACORN staffers offering advice to a "pimp" and his "ho" on running a fictitious prostitution ring. Keep in mind that no official investigation has rendered a verdict on the conduct of the ACORN employees--or the reliability of the video.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, John McCain accused ACORN of "maybe destroying the fabric of democracy" and alleged voter fraud that never happened. In May, Bill O'Reilly told Glenn Beck on the latter's show that "ACORN is now the furthest left organization in the country. It's committed to change, to social justice, the redistribution of wealth. It's a quasi-socialist outfit."
"Social justice" becomes a scourge in the new language. Such Atwateresque statements are powerfully divisive and utterly calculated in the context of the anti-Obama onslaught.

Jason Leopold reminds us on that the right wing has targeted ACORN for years because of its power to mobilize at the grassroots--as it did for Obama--and for its ability to register to vote mostly poor and working-class blacks and Latinos. The major media hopped on the ACORN-bashing bandwagon in 2004 when Republicans accused the group of widespread voter fraud. A handful of individual ACORN workers across the country copped to padding registration lists to get paid more, but investigations, of which there were many, showed no voter, e.g. ballot box-stuffing.

Fortunately, there's a rather large problem with the act, folks like Leopold and Rachel Maddow have pointed out: it may be unconstitutional. Article 1 forbids "bills of attainder," measures taken to punish a specific group or individual. The Congressional Research Service is studying the matter. Perhaps they should start by, um, looking at the act's title.

Still, the major media flock to the ACORN story using the right's talking points, which creates an environment where politicians-- plenty of the Democrats--are attacking an organization that has registered hundreds of thousands of voters and brought hope and relief to poor and working class people. Score another round for Fox and friends--and for the language of smear, divide, and conquer.

"The point is that some members of the GOP, the health care industry, and some people in the crowds are using strategies, language, and images that are meant to stoke racial fear and anxiety," Harris-Lacewell writes in her Nation piece. "Many have principled opposition to the reforms being proposed by the administration, but that opposition is swimming in a sea of racial ugliness."

What's most disturbing is not what the right does. It's that the major media now treat this egregious speech and imagery as legitimate political discourse, like when CNN asks whether the Obama-as-Witch Doctor posters seen at rallies and floating across the web are "racist or satirical." Please. Such faux balance normalizes such absurd "discourse" and perpetuates a familiar and ugly form of denial.

We need more journalists--plus producers, editors, and news executives--with, as my sister, a former CNNer like myself, puts it, "the guts to drag this uncomfortable, necessary discussion into the public eye. In the past, journalists knew they'd get attacked for it, but they did it anyway for the common good."