I’m sure I’m not the only one who is annoyed by the phrase, “playing the race card.” Today, the McCain campaign is accusing Barack Obama of using — what conventional wisdom calls — one of the most vile cards in the politics deck.
The idea of playing the race card is just a silly catch-all phrase that is designed to elicit some sort of negative response about the cardholder. Really, what does playing the race card mean? First of all, race is something that will be in this campaign no matter what. There have been 43 white male presidents in U.S. history. Here we have the first black major-party candidate with a real shot of becoming president, do you think that white males will just sit back and let that happen without reminding voters, “uh, excuse me, but he’s black.”
Of course not. There is too much history here. The unfinished business of slavery and its legacy continues to this very day because it was never dealt with fully, and Americans like to pretend that “we have moved beyond that.” So, until we actually deal with our history, race will be a part of the conversation.
Second, what journalists should be doing — instead of hyperventilating over who is “playing the race card” — is having real discussion about the content, or substance, of what is being called “playing the race card.” Most importantly, journalists should ask, who is actually benefiting from the focus of race in the campaign?
In this case, it’s the McCain campaign that will benefit. Their narrative so far about Obama (and amplified by the series of viral smear emails going around) has been all about Obama not being American enough, not patriotic enough, not putting his country first (see McCain’s new tagline), being the quintessential “other” (read: too black, or a Muslim which he is not — not that either of these should preclude one from becoming president).
And one last thing: the notion that the Obama campaign is playing the race card is just ridiculous. Why? Because, when you look at Obama, he is clearly black, or at least not white (though he is half, yet identifies as black; but more on identity/race/perception in the U.S. at some other time). So in a way, I guess Obama is a “walking race card.” Please. Look at history. It does not benefit him to be black when running for the presidency, and even if it did, he would maybe only be on equal ground with a white male at that point.
Late Update: I just want to re-emphasize the new McCain tagline, “COUNTRY FIRST” (refer to why a few paragraphs above), because there is a big kick-off (and free) “Country First” Concert tonight 8/1/08 in Panama City, Florida. This, combined with the negative ads this week, combined with the viral smear emails, is clearly the new unified message strategy. Everyone, repeat after me. The new tagline says it all. Check the screenshot below of the campaign website with the tagline blazed across the top.
Later Update: The “Country First” Concert with John McCain last night only draws several hundred people, which is only a fraction of what country music star John Rich normally gets at his concerts — usually in the thousands — and remember, this concert was free.