Our Bigoted Country and its Black President


Michael Lind has an interesting essay in Salon today puzzling over the overdog attempt to explain political opposition to Barack Obama as the product of white southern racism. Here's how it starts:

Back in the 1960s, Seymour Martin Lipset and Richard Hofstadter and other liberal sociologists, historians and political scientists, puzzled that anyone could support Barry Goldwater rather than Lyndon Johnson, concluded that Goldwater supporters were deranged. They didn't say so directly, of course. They said that members of the radical right were emotionally disturbed victims of "status anxiety." The evidence? They didn't vote the way that Lipset and other academics thought that they should vote. Therefore they had to be crazy.

In the decades since, far better scholars than Hofstadter and Lipset, for whom history and sociology are not exercises in partisan Democratic mythmaking, have established that Goldwater and Reagan Republicans often were highly educated, socially secure individuals who happened not to share the values of liberal professors and journalists. This scholarship has been wasted, to judge by the glee with which the liberal blogosphere, in the aftermath of the ephemeral "Birther" flap, has dusted off the old conservatives-are-crazy meme, and revised it to suggest that all white Southerners are crazy.

I don't doubt for a second that there were many southern racists who found comfort in Barry Goldwater's federalist and property rights-based opposition to the Civil Rights Act, and that some overlap remains between states' rights enthusiasm and bigotry. And I've never been fond of the "what-if-they-said-the-same-thing-about-blacks" school of reverse-gotchaism.

Throat-clearing aside, the thing that is genuinely puzzling to me about the "racial anxiety" school of punditry about town hall America and opposition to Obama is that the black guy won the election. I can't tell you how many people told me during 2007-08 that America was "too racist" to elect a black president just yet, and yet not only did Obama win handily, Americans like him a hell of a lot better than they like his policies. He's likeable! Especially if you're not a racist, i.e., if you're like most Americans.

The other day I clicked the link on one of Andrew Sullivan's Quotes of the Day, by former Colin Powell chief of staff Larry Wilkerson, and was amused to find this exchange, from a Foreign Policy interview published in October 2008.

FP: What's your take on the tone of the campaign?

LW: I was fully expecting the grand wizard of the Klu Klux Klan to arrive from Maryland and endorse McCain. I was becoming frightened that we were returning to 1968, when they assassinated Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Those were bad times.

They were bad times. Also, we're not living through them right now. Nor were we during the 2008 election, it turns out.

It's always a weird transition to go from eight years in the wilderness to eight months on the winning team, but a little advice from those of us who are always on the outside looking in: Even though it's funny and useful to dig up the latest racist e-mail from some Republican dogcatcher, and even though the GOP deserves each and every bad-karma boomerang it gets from years of whipping up racial and homophobic ugliness, using those as a proxy to explain why the president isn't getting 100 percent of what he wants remains a little on the unpersuasive side. Particularly for those of us independents who Obama needs so badly.

And if race was truly driving the debate more than genuine anxiety over health care, fiscal recklessness, and the economy as a whole, why wouldn't the crackers be going on a rampage over the impending sovereignty/tribal council reorganization of Obama's home state? Is it just that they can't spell H-a-w-a-i-i?