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Is He American Enough?

Author: Peter Beinart
October 9, 2008
Time Magazine


Race will matter on Election Day. But it's not about black and white

"I am just so fearful that this is not a man who sees America the way that you and I see America." So said Sarah Palin about Barack Obama on Oct. 6 as she attacked him for his decision to "pal around" with onetime Weatherman bomber Bill Ayers. With Obama back in the lead, the new, harsher Republican line surprised almost nobody. The Obama campaign declared it a distraction before it even arrived.

But seen in historical perspective, the McCain campaign's strategy against Obama is actually kind of shocking. For years, the recipe for injecting race into a political campaign has been clear. First, invoke the specter of black crime, as Lee Atwater did in 1988 when he vowed to turn murderer Willie Horton into Michael Dukakis' "running mate." Second, attack lazy people in the inner city, as Ronald Reagan did in 1976 when he condemned a Chicago "welfare queen." Third, bash affirmative action, as the late North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms did in 1990 when he ran an ad showing white hands crumpling a job rejection notice.

Historically, this stuff has often worked, even against white candidates considered too solicitous of African-American concerns. And yet this year, with a black man actually running for President, the old recipe has been shelved. John McCain hasn't run ads on crime, welfare or racial preferences. At the gop convention, the subjects barely came up.

Does that mean race doesn't matter this year? Hardly. It just matters in a different way. In the past, Republicans often used race to make their opponents seem anti-white. In 2008, with their incessant talk about who loves their country and who doesn't, McCain and Palin are doing something different: they're using race to make Obama seem anti-American.

To grasp the difference, imagine if the Democrats had nominated Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. Republicans would have slammed them as profligate, divisive and militant but not as foreign. Even racists couldn't deny that Jackson and Sharpton are fully American. In fact, because slavery ruptured ancestral ties of language and culture, African Americans often have fewer transnational connections than Americans whose forebears traveled voluntarily to these shores. Our national vernacular is filled with antiblack euphemisms, but cosmopolitan isn't one of them.

Yet when critics attack Obama, that's the word that keeps popping up. Rudy Giuliani mentioned it in his convention speech. So has Rush Limbaugh, along with several national conservative columnists. Ever since the primaries, Obama's detractors have tried to depict him less as threatening to white America than as distant from America itself. This wasn't a solely Republican idea. In March of last year, Democratic campaign guru Mark Penn urged Hillary Clinton to exploit Obama's "lack of American roots" and "limited" connection to "basic American values and culture." Clinton, he advised, should add the tagline American to everything she did. Fox News and its friends spent most of the spring linking Obama to Jeremiah Wright and thus painting him as a closet racial militant. But in the general election, McCain has hewed closer to Penn's advice. One gop commercial touted the Arizona Senator as "the American President Americans have been waiting for," as if there were another kind. Over the summer, McCain unveiled a new slogan: "Country first." When Obama traveled abroad in July, a McCain ad showed images of him addressing a Berlin crowd alongside the words "The biggest celebrity in the world." And now Palin is suggesting he doesn't feel the same way about America that most Americans do.

Even though Obama is ahead, the attacks have taken their toll. Polling by the Pew Research Center last month reveals that only 63% of white voters say Obama is patriotic. (That's 32 points fewer than McCain, and 13 points fewer than Hillary Clinton got among all voters in March.) When asked by Pew in May what they dislike about McCain, the overwhelming majority of respondents cited his political views. In Obama's case, however, nearly a third also mentioned "the kind of person he is."

Partly, of course, this is a response to Obama's unusual biography: his African Muslim father, his foreign-sounding name, his childhood outside the continental U.S. But it's also a measure of the times. The racial wedge issues of the 1970s and ‘80s-busing, crime, welfare, affirmative action-have all but disappeared. When pollsters compile lists of Americans' top concerns, those barely register. What is on the rise is anxiety about globalization. Support for unregulated free trade has cratered on the Democratic left. Hostility to illegal immigration is red hot on the Republican right. And beyond the partisan divide, it's the same demographic that is most upset about both: working-class whites.

In the primaries, Obama tried to assuage these concerns by bashing NAFTA and other trade deals, but he largely failed. In states where globalization has hit hard, such as Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, he lost working-class whites. And one reason is that globalization anxiety is not merely economic; it is cultural. In recent decades, the face of America has changed. At one end of the class ladder, low-wage workers have streamed in from Latin America, transforming parts of the country that hadn't seen significant immigration in a century. At the other, America's economic elite has become far more multicultural, as Indians, Koreans and Russians flood state universities and private colleges, hedge funds and Internet start-ups. Partly as a result, interracial marriage is way up, especially among college graduates. There were more than 3 million mixed-marriage couples in the U.S. in 2005, 10 times as many as in 1970. Author Richard Rodriguez, the son of Mexican-American immigrants, not long ago wrote that America's new national color is neither black nor white but brown.

Whether he wants to or not, Obama has come to personify this more globalized, multicultural-yes, cosmopolitan-America. It's one reason many liberals love him: he embodies a new America, more diverse, more tolerant and more open to the world. But as Penn's memo implied, that's also his Achilles' heel. As the face of America has changed, so has the face of American racism. Old-fashioned antiblack bigotry still exists, but today, far more than 20 years ago, white Americans are likely to associate dark skin with foreignness. When Americans complain about school integration now, they're often referring to the children of immigrants, who are forcing their school boards to spend millions of dollars on English-as-a-second-language programs. Were Helms alive today and updating his notorious "white hands" ad, he might blame not African Americans receiving racial preferences but Salvadorans or Somalis working for minimum or below-minimum wage. Since 9/11, these fears have often fused-in not entirely rational ways-with fears of terrorism. Anti-illegal-immigration activists often cite the threat of jihadists creeping across the Rio Grande. Two years ago, when a company from Dubai tried to take over the operation of some U.S. ports, both Democratic and Republican politicians erupted in a demagogic frenzy. For many Americans, globalization is unsettling enough. Wrap it in a kaffiyeh, and you have a political revolt.

It is these 21st century anxieties-anxieties about changes from outside America that seem beyond average Americans' control-that represent the Republicans' best shot at unhorsing Obama now. In March, Pew found that 56% of high school-educated white voters see newcomers as threatening, compared with less than a third of those with a college degree. White voters who haven't graduated from college, according to a Pew poll in September, were more than twice as likely to think Obama is Muslim as those who have. And not coincidentally, it is among these less educated white voters that McCain is strongest. Among non-Hispanic whites who have attended graduate school, according to Gallup this month, Obama leads McCain by 13 points. Among those with a high school diploma or less, he trails by 12.

Fifty years ago, America's racial challenges came largely from within, as black Americans demanded full equality in the country they had inhabited for hundreds of years. Today many of America's racial challenges come from without, as Third World immigration transforms the nation and U.S. workers and leaders struggle to come to terms with China and India, the emerging, nonwhite superpowers. If Martin Luther King Jr. symbolized that earlier transition, Barack Obama may have inadvertently come to symbolize this one. How he fares on Nov. 4 will be a sign of America's willingness to embrace the realities of a new age.


This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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