08/12/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

McCain's Race Ad

The McCain ad comparing Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton was mind-boggling in its crass stupidity, reminiscent of the class oaf's boorish attempts to mock the cool high school hero. But I had not connected it with the hoary practice of inciting racism by sexual innuendo until I read Bob Herbert's excellent column comparing the images of the two world class bad girls at the beginning of a supposedly political anti-Obama ad to another Republican effort in 2006 starring a white sex kitten asking Harold Ford to call her.

What is it that, still, in 2008, scares whites so much about the idea of black men and white women? I can understand, which is not the same as condone, bigotry born of competition for jobs or places in school. I can comprehend, but again not approve, fear born of "the other." But why this terror of black males and white females?

The Scottsboro boys were accused of raping two white women. Emmett Till was thought to have whistled at a white woman, though he probably only had a lisp. In his autobiographical Black Boy, Richard Wright tells of a white man, angry at Wright's going North, taunting him with the question, "Would you speak to a white girl up there?"

The impetus for the absurd McCain ad was Obama's riotous European welcome. There is a certain irony in that. This summer marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Notting Hill Riots. When I was in London recently talking about my book on Scottsboro, people often brought up the riots, which began in August, 1958, when a group of Teddy Boys assaulted a white Swedish woman married to a black West Indian man. More than two weeks of racial violence followed. While police tried to reign in the nightly battles, the Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, spoke of the large numbers of complaints about black men living on the immoral earnings of white women. It was the old taboo with a new economic twist.

Obviously, the fear of black men and white women knows no national borders. But its universality does not make it any more comprehensible. Nor does the fact that the combination of a white man with a black woman rarely attracts attention, let alone incites to violence. It was, in fact, a staple of the Old South. I'm not suggesting that women are immune to this particular form of bigotry. Black women often disapprove of black men who take up with white women. White women can be as small minded as their male counterparts. But I don't think it's an accident that the party that runs these slimy adds is the party of old white men hanging on to their fast-disappearing prerogatives.