When pollsters ask Americans whether they would be willing to vote for an African-American presidential candidate they always answer: "Oh certainly!" But in the privacy of the voting booth they find it difficult to steady their quivering hand as it slowly, yet steadily drifts toward pulling the handle for the white candidate no matter what.
Lyndon Johnson had famously predicted when he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that he was handing over the South to the Republicans. Richard Nixon's "southern strategy" has born fruit for the GOP, the South is reliably Republican; in general, the white folks down there will never vote for the same party as the blacks.
But the Republicans didn't stop at securing the South; under Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, and George W. Bush, the whole country has been "Southernized." In 2000, when Karl Rove evoked John McCain's "black baby" in push polls targeting the lily-white suburbs of South Carolina, he knew what he was doing. When Katherine Harris threw all of those black people off the Florida voting rolls, she knew what she was doing. When Bush's daddy, George H.W. Bush appointed Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, a seat that Thurgood Marshall had carved out through decades of courageous civil rights struggles, he knew what he was doing. And when Barbara Bush suggested that things were working out marvelously for the mostly black Katrina victims suffering inside the Houston Astrodome, she knew what she was saying.
Enter the multimillionaire, cowboy-costumed, shit-kickin' friend of Dick Cheney, radio talk show host Don Imus. His brand of racism reaffirms that sense of privilege and entitlement that the beleaguered white men of his target demographic love to feel. Imus gives them a little shot of what W.E.B. DuBois called the "social wage." They might be economically on the same level as their African-American neighbors, but they get "the privilege" of identifying with the dominant white society. These hard-workin' white boys might be strugglin' to get by, but it sure makes 'em feel real good when they can hear on their radio dials their hero Don Imus call African-Americans "nappy-headed ho's." Or call the journalist Gwen Ifill a "cleaning lady." I wonder what Imus says about black people when millions of people aren't listening?
And this brings us to Illinois Senator Barack Obama. He could be the right leader at the right time for America in 2008. His aptly titled book, The Audacity of Hope, shows that he is a thoughtful politician with a strong sense of social justice, a quality of leadership that has been sorely lacking during the Bush-Abramoff years. If Senator Obama were to win the Democratic Party's nomination for president it would make 2008 the most exciting and substantive election in recent memory. If given the opportunity, Obama could be a great president. But Don Imus's Ku Klux Klanish talk over the public airwaves suggests Obama has a long way to go in breaking down the endemic and pervasive racism in America.