The people in my mother’s family, on the whole, have always been warm-hearted, decent and tolerant. But the 1968 Trenton riots threw two or three into a state of race paranoia. They weren’t in that state all alone, either. My mother’s boss, a middle-aged insurance man who’d never in his life shot anything but the breeze, took to packing a .45 under his suit jacket.
In 1969, my grandparents died in a house fire. When my grandfather’s will was read, his family learned he’d picked a black man to help carry his casket. The two had met and bonded through a common love of jazz music. With grief compounding panic, some relatives threatened to boycott the funeral unless the color line were firmly drawn. My great-grandfather, whose Napoleonic gaze could send his wife scurrying for the humidor where he kept the good cigars, did manage to corral them. But the statement had been made. As a reproof, my mother ordered up Mass cards with Martin de Porres’ portrait.
It was a subtle gesture born of a noble assumption: that people of different races would get along perfectly well once they got to know each other. The idea had a good run. It made Norman Lear’s career (just as he, it could be argued, prolonged its). Racists, the presumed flies in the ointment, became stock cultural villains, to the point where a black teenager named Tawana Brawley could lead the media and the legal system on a year-long wild goose chase simply by claiming to have been abducted and raped by white cops. When the words “TAWANA TOLD THE TRUTH” appeared on a wall at the end of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, serious people felt free to debate what it could mean, rather than write it off as provocative nonsense.
Granted, taboos on race were often bizarre, and even more often enforced with a complete absence of humor or charity. (A good example would be the Obama campaign’s objection to the New Yorker cover depcting the future president in an Arabic djellaba and the future first lady as a Black Panther.) Very naturally, breaking them came to represent a good bit of transgressive fun. The dittoheads who made a hit of Paul Shanklin’s “Barack the Magic Negro” weren’t protesting the proliferation of a literary cliche. They were giggling, “He totally almost said the N-word! Good times!”
The run of that idea — that suppressing racial grudges is vital to the maintenance of a healthy society — may just about have come to an end. Now, among presidential candidates, heavy-footedness on race confers a certain respectability. Newt Gingrinch broke the collective responsibility barrier by telling a mainly white audience: “I will go to the NAACP convention and tell the African-American community why they should demand paychecks instead of food stamps.” Though Ron Paul has taken pains to disavow the race-baiting in his old newsletters Freedom Report and Survival Report, he might be gilding the lily-white, so to speak. James Kirchik published his expose in 2008; since then, Paul’s candidacy has only become more viable and relevant.
Other candidates in other elections have made appeals to lingering racial anxieties, but the appeals have always been coded or furtive. The Willie Horton ads that ran during George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign made no overt reference to Horton’s race — except, of course, for the photographs that accompanied the somber pitch. The rumor that John McCain had sired a mixed-race baby out of wedlock was spread by push poll and e-mail, and was couched in a more general assault on the candidate’s integrity.
Of course, nobody’s come right out and said, “racism is good,” or quoted Edmund Burke on the positive value of prejudice. Instead, goes the unofficial line, racism no longer exists; it’s a big liberal myth. Earlier in the campaign season, Herman Cain told Candy Crowley: “I don’t believe there is racism in this country today that holds anybody back in a big way.” When Juan Williams suggested the message he wanted to deliver to the NAACP might be insulting to blacks, Gingrich answered flatly, “No, I don’t see that.” This led WSJ’s James Taranto to declare Gingrich’s statement “the most compelling dramatization of racial progress so far this century.”
Imagine if President Obama, instead of disavowing any sympathy for the views of Reverend Wright, had said, “The man has a point. America is damnable but I can fix it.” This is where we’re at now. I don’t like it. History is weighty. It’s understandable that sensibilities should be fragile. If the promise of goodwill between the races was a lie, it was a Noble Lie, grounded in a belief in human nature’s openness to improvement. Kansas House Speaker Mike O’Neal set a good example here when he took flack for circulating two e-mails. One referred to the first lady as “Mrs. YoMama”; the other invoked Psalm 109 (“Let his days be few and brief”) against the president himself. In apologizing for the first while standing his ground on the second, O’Neal proved you can be a hard-knuckled partisan SOB and a gentleman on race at one and the same time.
I’d like to send a copy of this to Newt Gingrich. Or maybe I’ll just send him a prayer card with Martin de Porres on it. I’m afraid we’ve come to a point where apologists for racial sensitivity will have to resort to dog whistles.