What astounds me about the "race card" -- which either did or didn't get played in the presidential race recently -- is its thinness.
Racial politics, and racism itself, used to be a way of life, as pervasive as hatred, as far-reaching as ignorance. Large institutions were devoted to it, politicians reveled in it, history is permeated with it. And now all that's left of the phenomenon, apparently -- or so it would seem, to anyone whose 24/7 mind-control machine (once known as the boob tube) is hooked up -- is that single card, the playing of which not only queers the game but forces a moment of freaked-out media attention on the fact that a game is being played at all, and all of us are in some vague way participants.
An examination of the incident might be illuminating not so we can cast a verdict on it one way or the other, necessarily, but so we can get a glimpse of the contours of the game itself, and the larger context in which it hovers uneasily. That context, of course, is America, past, present and future. Presidential elections have, over the years, it seems to me, become more and more about the game and less and less about the context.
So what happened, of course, is that last week Barack Obama said: "Nobody thinks that Bush and McCain have a real answer to the challenges we face. So what they're going to try to do is make you scared of me. You know, 'he's not patriotic enough, he's got a funny name,' you know, 'he doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills.'"
And a day earlier, in the wake of Obama's high-five world tour that generated enormous media attention, John McCain's campaign released an ad that noted sourly: "He's the biggest celebrity in the world, but is he ready to lead?" Mixed with images of Obama in Europe were America's two favorite airheads, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Maybe their presence in the ad is completely innocent, but to angry critics, the operative inference is that they're sexy, young white women "notorious for displaying themselves to the paparazzi while not wearing underwear," as New York Times columnist Bob Herbert noted.
And this is the state of America's racial awareness in the 21st century, as manifested in our quadrennial ritual of power transfer, the process that's supposed to make us the world's greatest democracy. How embarrassing.
I blame the actual participants in the "game" -- the presidential race -- who are trapped in a win-lose struggle with enormous stakes, far less than I blame the pervasive corporate media, which are unable to resist the temptation to hop into the game with them. Thus they breathlessly report on every last gaffe and emotionally manipulative sound bite, every poll spike, every superficial accusation, with gleeful overkill, keeping us overly informed about nothing in particular, and at the same time they do their best to reduce the context of their reportage to the game itself. What matters is who wins, not what the country learns about itself and decides to become.
This dumbed-down state of national awareness, which the media seem to feel obligated to maintain, reminds me of a defining characteristic of very primitive societies: They have a name for every bend in the river, but no name for the river. The "river" of presidential politics is our evolving, collective consciousness.
What, then, might the race card incident tell us about the name and destiny of this river? Our nation has evolved through three distinct eras of racial awareness. The first, of course, is the Slave Era, when we lived with the concept of human chattel and conceded African-Americans three-fifths the humanity, and none of the rights, of white people.
The Jim Crow Era followed the Civil War, Reconstruction and the constitutional corrections of Amendments 13, 14 and 15. This era was characterized by racial prejudice hardly less virulent than during the Slave Era, lynching picnics and a wide array of laws maintaining racial separation and inequality in every aspect of life. White supremacy was overt and unashamed of itself: James Jeffries was "the Great White Hope," for instance, when he took on black boxing champ Jack Johnson in 1910.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s ended the Jim Crow Era, stigmatized racism and shattered most legal forms of racial discrimination, forcing the still-virulent racism harbored in many American hearts underground. This is the era we are still in: the era of racial code words and indirect, de facto discrimination. It's the era of Bush I's infamous Willie Horton ad and Nixon's Southern strategy, by which the Republican Party quietly ceased to be the party of Lincoln. It's the Era of Forgetting.
And Obama, by poking at the nation's subterranean racism, by suggesting that the McCain campaign was not above tapping into it through fear and innuendo, violated the cardinal rule of the Era of Forgetting: He talked about it. McCain, through Paris and Britney, sought only to remind us of how scared we used to be. It was a nostalgic appeal to the good old days. Don't make more of it than that.
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Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.
© 2008 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.