Earlier this week, Reason.com published Bill Steigerwald's explosive "Whitewashing John Steinbeck: Why partisan politics and virulent racism were cut from the celebrated 'non-fiction' road book Travels With Charley," which looked at the ways in which the Nobel laureate soft-peddled various aspects of his trip across the "real America" at the start of the 1960s. Specifically, Steigerwald looked at the way in which Steinbeck's political partisanship was excised from the final published version of the book and the way that Steinbeck and his publisher yanked an explicit account of segregationists attacking parents and schoolkids daring to enter a newly integrated school in New Orleans. (Previous literary detective work by Steigerwald, also published by Reason, explored the fabulism in Travels With Charley and sparked a New York Times editorial decrying academic indifference to its exposure.)
Given ongoing assertions by defenders of Barack Obama that hostility toward the nation's first African-American president is motivated in some way—consciously or unconsciously, partly or wholly, or just necessarily due to the country's tortured history of racism—it's worth remembering how far we have come as a society in terms of race relations. If conservatives sometimes glibly dismiss the ugly reality of a pre-Civil Rights America and lingering racial resentments, liberals sometimes similarly refuse to acknowledge the vast distance that separates the America Obama was born into and the one over which he presides.
As Steigerwald tells it, John Steinbeck in 1960 visited the William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans precisely because of the overt racism on display. A group of mostly women protesters (dubbed "Cheerleaders") ringed the school (made famous in a Norman Rockwell painting) and taunted the black and white kids entering the building.
Steinbeck drove to New Orleans specifically to see the daily circus of hate and what he saw rightly disgusted him. He felt that the "sad sickness" of that racist sideshow could not be conveyed unless the foul things the working-class women screamed were put down on paper for all to see. Writing that he knew there was "not a chance in the world that my readers will see" the women's "bestial and degenerate" words, he quoted—or, more likely, he wrote down a condensed version of how he remembered them….
This is what Steinbeck said one woman shrieked at a white man who was defying the boycott by bringing his child to the virtually empty school: "You mother fucking, nigger sucking, prick licking piece of shit. Why you'd lick a dog's ass if he'd let you. Look at the bastard drag his dirty stinking ass along. You think that's his kid? That's a piece of shit. That's shit leading shit. Know what we ought to do? Strip down them fancy pants and cut off his balls and feed them to the pigs—that is if he's got any balls. How about it friends?"
In the published version of Travels with Charley, Steinbeck mentions the "bestial and filthy and degenerate" epithets the women screamed without quoting them directly. From today's vantage, arguably the most-striking thing about it is that people felt so comfortable expressing it so openly. Contemporaneous with Obama's birth, large segments of Americans still believed in legally enforced segregation, often claiming that both races preferred such separation (an explanation that, if true, would have made laws dictating it unnecessary).
We live in a better America not simply because virtually no one would voice such vile racist sentiments in public, but because virtually no one even thinks them anymore. And the improvement is not simply in terms of the worst sort of George Wallace-Strom Thurmond-style racism. Across a wide variety of indicators—most notably when it comes to interracial marriages—America has progressed to a much better place than where it was when it was Steinbeck was writing Travels with Charley and Obama's parents were married.
Race still matters in American life, and to the extent that it does, there is still work to be done in terms of improvement. But as Obama's own election and polls show, race clearly is not a deciding factor in presidential politics. Assertions that race is at the heart of—or even a contributing factor to – Obama's rotten poll numbers is blame-shifting of the worst kind. Yet folks ranging from New York magazine's Jonathan Chait to Salon's Joan Walsh to the New York Times' Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd to many others are ready and willing to do so.
Using racial animus as the go-to explanation for any real or imagined reversal of fortune for President Obama—remember when Slate's Jacob Weisberg implausibly decreed "Racism is the only reason Obama might lose" in 2008?—may comfort liberals now that the president's stimulus inarguably failed to energize the economy as promised, that his more-Bushian-than-Bush embrace of limitless executive power has alienated left-wing civil libertarians, and his recent statements about government's role in building the Internet and all business successes (but never, it seems, failures) have alienated many voters.
But that comfort is purchased at the expense of being able to grasp an electoral reality that has seen voters evacuate the Republican and Democratic parties—and their cynical manipulation of rhetoric and reality— in record numbers. If conservative Republicans can't understand that fewer people want to associate with them because they lied when they said they favored a government that did less and spent less, nothing can save the party of Lincoln from eventual receivership. And if liberal Democrats can't fully grasp that voters are turned off not the color of Obama's skin but by the failure of his presidency, they too will continue to see fewer and fewer people marching under their banner.
Nick Gillespie is the editor in chief of Reason.com and Reason.tv and the co-author with Matt Welch of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America, now out in paperback with a new foreword.