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The Divide That United

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/11/obama-change.jpgSen. Barack Obama (WDCpix)

As this election draws to a close, a strange and wonderful thing is happening with hardly a being word said about it: racism is losing. To celebrate this fact might feel like assuming an Obama victory, but this is about another sort of victory.

Sen. John McCain was once considered an honorable man, a maverick even, but clearly not so upstanding as to resist mounting The Last Republican Campaign. Again. We have seen it many times — whether attributed to Richard M. Nixon, Lee Atwater or Karl Rove. It relies not just on “culture wars,” “wedge issues” and “the base.” It relies on racism. And it usually wins. Well, to coin a phrase, not this time.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Since the Republican National Convention, the McCain-Palin ticket has hurled or endorsed the following “epithets” at Sen. Barack Obama to highlight his otherness: Muslim, terrorist, socialist, (sneer first) community organizer, elitist.

Frustrated that the polls keep moving away from them, the Republicans question whether tens of millions of Obama supporters with Big City addresses are “real” Americans. Their nationally televised white pride moments are revealing. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin considers “redneck” a compliment.

Yet for all the macho, moose-killing bravado of these labels, none was said to the man’s face — as must be done in those sections of New York where Humphrey Bogart once advised the Nazis not to try to invade. No, the campaign of verbal violence has uttered these pearls for the supposed electoral swine who would know the codes and dive into the mud after them. Some have, even playing the assassination card (“Kill him!”). For the party that reduces racial matters to a card game, stacking the deck with insults, innuendo and blatant division has not met with much success.

Why not? Other than time and sanity, two things happened to rescue the apparent self-interest of a majority of Americans polled: the calamitous presidency of George W. Bush and the death of the American dream of credit consumption—as in garage sales, foreclosures and the end of consumer life as we knew it.

Obama might have won with only the first. The second — and McCain’s initial unresponsive response to it — makes it probable. Why? Because the previous Republican campaigns succeeded by stoking people’s “artificial differences,” as Jesse Jackson once put it. That old okey-doke can’t survive this much time or this much crisis. Americans have seen their self-interest, and he’s the skinny black guy with the six-minute answers.

What this means for racism is different than we thought. We thought if racist campaigns would be undone, if racist tactics occurred and were beaten back, it would be by Obama and his team. After all, he’s a self-described “unifier.”

Well, it turns out there may be an even greater unifying force than a unifier: dividers. The McCain-Palin campaign has hauled out the racial tropes, codes and one-liners like an incredulous comic mad at his audience for not getting it. Other than telling falsehoods, division is their most consistent act.

Sure, there are millions who find this stuff entertaining. But week after week, both national polls and the more granular kind tell us, amazingly, that the people to whom ignorance sells is a shrinking minority. That doesn’t mean ignorance doesn’t exist. It means it’s become unreliable. Face it, the jokes just aren’t funny anymore.

Racism is losing.

In any event, pluralism is winning, and the McCain campaign has shown almost a contempt for pluralism. The burden for social change need not always be on the presence of a unifier. Sometimes it’s the absence of antagonistic ideology and the simplistic rhetoric of massive resisters that creates room for change.

First the dividers must go. Then maybe we can all talk again. Maybe the election will help make certain things less spectacular and render others obvious. Maybe we can speak of our interests; re-examine our history in order to undo it, and plan for shared equity. It’s clear we need it.

My personal hope is the GOP campaign orthodoxy, as set down by Rove, will lose so soundly that Republicans will forever remember the “McCain ‘08” strategy in which they tried every last divisive trick against “That One.” They pulled all the goodies off the shelf one more time — including the repugnant appeal to sexuality, faux-feminism, faux-populism and vulgar mediocrity entangled in the Palin pick — only to find that, to a trick, they failed. And failed so miserably that no one will ever again want to put them back in play.

But let’s accept it for what it is. This is only a presidential campaign; and racism in the United States runs deep, through many more institutions and even many more minds. If we’re honest, we will admit that we are still learning the lessons of Katrina, let alone correcting them, before we can claim victory over racism itself.

But this election is truly remarkable. My hope is that people who dare to even sound like McCain, Palin or any of the hate-mongers they employ will, in future, be recognized as somebody to avoid.

Perhaps we thought Obama himself would be “the one” to do it, because he dared to try. Back in March, in Philly and Rev. Jeremiah Wright. That was something, but not quite what it means to hear others like former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell stand up for the undefended Muslims and say, in effect, “How dare you! They are us, and we are them.” It was only a gesture of decency and remembrance. But translate that into policy and you may see half the battle won.

Or maybe Obama, despite his campaign silence on that issue, is readying us for something special after all. Maybe he is teaching us a way do this race thing a little differently than we’ve been doing it. By first leading us to our shared needs and aspirations. By leaving no one out. By then understanding racial inclusion as an aspect of citizenship.

Maybe, in the absence of haters and their lexicon, we are not quite as far apart as we figured. If Obama wins, maybe we’ll see what life is like with competent agency heads pursuing laws that all along have required equality in their administration — but rarely got past the politics involved. It will be different.

Of course, if it happens, it will happen amid painful scarcity, war and high economic anxiety — just the sort of conditions that have always made social change difficult. But that is where we are. Nothing but a little greatness is required of us all.

David Dante Troutt is a professor of law at Rutgers University. His most recent books are “The Importance of Being Dangerous” and After the Storm: Black Intellectuals Explore the Meaning of Hurricane Katrina.” He can be read at daviddantetroutt.com.

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