The frank comments of unapologetic anti-Obama racists across the country have recently gained a wide national audience. As Ricky Thompson, a pipe fitter from Mobile, Alabama, told a New York Times reporter, "He's neither-nor. He's other. It's in the Bible. Come as one. Don't create other breeds." Another denizen of the GOP's "real America" shared his spiritual insights with the same interviewer. Glenn Reynolds, of Martinsville, Virginia pointed out, "God taught the children of Israel not to intermarry." Such shameless declarations of prejudice reveal something obvious but easily overlooked: It is not Obama's blackness that disturbs these pious bigots, but his grayness.
Ideas that now seem like crackpot notions of race were, not long ago, regarded as common sense, and found themselves codified in law. The "one-drop rule" asserted that a single drop of black blood in an otherwise white citizen rendered that person black. Blackness was widely viewed as a contaminant that sullied white purity. (In antebellum America, white slave owners got around this problem by either denying the ordinary practice of raping and impregnating black women, or by justifying this predation as a racial improvement of the population of black slaves.) The rule was adopted by numerous state legislators in the first third of the 20th century, and used as the basis for Jim Crow laws.
In 1924 Dr. Walter Plecker, a public health advocate who worked for Virginia's Vital Statistics Department, said, "Two races as materially divergent as the White and Negro, in morals, mental powers, and cultural fitness, cannot live in close contact without injury to the higher." It wasn't until 1967 that the U.S. Supreme Court proclaimed Plecker's Virginia Racial Integrity Act and the one-drop rule unconstitutional. This decision, which eliminated the ban on interracial marriage, bore the wonderfully apt title of Loving v. Virginia.
Sadly but not surprisingly, such legal victories have not kept Plecker's sentiments from being embraced by contemporary guardians of racial boundaries. And, Barack Obama, the child of a black African father and a white American mother, is for these folks the very embodiment of what must not be brought together.
As psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has succinctly observed, "We hold ourselves together by keeping things apart." While legally sanctioned racial segregation in public life may be moldering in history's dustbin, a corresponding segregation in our inner lives continues to structure our thoughts and emotions.
Some people consciously, most unconsciously, hold on for dear life to the pure and invariant categories of "good" and "bad." Keeping them apart and unambiguously distinct helps us retain a reassuring infantile fantasy of safety, order and certainty. "Race" lends itself well to this process of splitting. Imagined as fundamentally unlike us, the racialized other becomes the perfect receptacle into which we are free to project all the wishes, impulses, and longings that we cannot bear to see in our ethnic group or ourselves. In other words, racism allows us to be all-good because there is someplace outside of us to put the bad.
Of course, this ruse we perpetrate on ourselves only works if we can sustain the delusion of absolute difference. Those who are more consciously racist rely on what Erik Erickson called "pseudo-speciation," viewing other racial groups as separate species. "Inter-breeding" thereby becomes a psychological, as well as a theological abomination.
Speaking of spiritual matters, we should not be too surprised that most openly racist people are religious fundamentalists. This is not just because so many Biblical fairy tales endorse slavery, ethnic warfare and genocide, and inveigh against "race mixing," but because the structure of fundamentalist theology and racism are the same - they both rely on splitting. A recent example of this symmetry is the fundamentalist Christian Bob Jones University, which didn't overturn its ban on interracial dating until 2000. (This was done with considerable reluctance, and primarily to save George W. Bush from political embarrassment after having given a campaign stump speech in their chapel.) Such racist thumpers of holy books literally as well as metaphorically think in black and white terms.
Thus, the very visibility of Barack Obama - let alone his candidacy for the most powerful and, before Bush, the most esteemed job in the world - creates a category crisis of epic proportions. He not only mouths a rhetoric of transcending division, but is himself a seamless genetic integration of what should be immiscible. The decent, God-fearing racist must be plagued by unanswerable questions: What is this incomprehensible hybrid of badness and goodness? How can the same person contain that with which I identify and which I despise? What does that make me?
In the course of the presidential campaign, we have heard Republican ads and seen GOP viral emails that pose more rational-seeming derivatives of these questions: Who is Barack Obama? Do we actually know him? Doesn't he sound kind of uppity and elitist? Is he a Christian or a Muslim? Is he really like us? Didn't he grow up in one of those anti-American parts of America, like Hawaii?
By way of concluding, I want to emphasize that most Americans are not consciously racist, and would abhor the prejudice and ignorance manifested by the good white Christians cited above. But as Drew Westen and other researchers have shown, the majority of people - black as well as white - harbor an unconscious negative bias against anyone perceived as black. At a deep level, most of us make use of racial categories to navigate the world, manage its vague and unseen threats, and define our worth.
And why should we expect otherwise? Every person in this country is embedded in a culture and history founded on racist beliefs, practices, and emotions. There is no place to stand outside this psychological and social reality. It saturates our national sense of self and structures our neural networks.
What is possible, however, is to acknowledge and remain mindful of this ugly and disturbing legacy so that we can minimize its influence on how we treat others, and how we elect leaders to public office. And, as the enthusiastic throngs of citizens, here and abroad, attest, it is even possible to move beyond "tolerance" - to embrace and celebrate the fluidity of categories, cultures, and identities that Obama's candidacy has come to symbolize.