Opinion: Playing the race card in the Obama age

Posted: Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Here's what hasn't changed in America. In the past week or so, we've seen a threatened Senate stand-off, hyperbolic historical references, an alleged case of stonewalling by the Illinois secretary of state, lawsuits and rumors of lawsuits, a wild-card nominee for the Senate first turned away from that body and then perhaps accepted by it, and that same nominee called upon to testify in the impeachment hearings of the man who nominated him - all tied together by the complicating factor of race.

Former Illinois attorney general Roland Burris may well be qualified to serve as the junior senator from Illinois, but his path to office demonstrates not only that cynicism is alive and well but that the politics of racial divisiveness remain with us too. With one stroke, public attention shifted away from a corrupt governor's attempt to auction a public office and onto the reliably controversial terrain of race.

In pushing the case for Burris, Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., who is black, made inflamed references to lynching - arguing that criticizing Burris was akin to lynching a black man - and to the "plantation politics" of the Senate. Rush illustrated perfectly the kind of cynical manipulation of race that President-elect Barack Obama rejected throughout his campaign, especially in his speech on race last March. But Gov. Rod Blagojevich's gambit worked. The Illinois House voted overwhelmingly to impeach him on Friday, but it does appear as though whatever else happens, on the point of Sen. Burris, he will prevail.

Thus, on the cusp of a historic inauguration, one Illinois politician has dared us to believe that we can see beyond our racial divisions, and two others have shown us precisely why those divisions have endured for so long.

In the buffet of absurdities surrounding the Burris nomination, Rush managed to distinguish himself for verbal audacity. Between 1880 and 1910, more than 3,000 African Americans were lynched in the United States. The brutal rites involved shooting, dragging, castrating and frequently setting fire to blacks who violated the Byzantine social code of the Old South. A black candidate being damned by his connection to a corrupt governor just doesn't fall into the same category - which is perhaps why Rush made the comment in the first place.

What makes Rush's statements even more egregious is the fact that representatives from 49 other states could credibly make the argument that blacks stand little chance of being elected to the Senate. The track record is dismal: Only three blacks have served in the Senate since Reconstruction - two of them elected in the past 20 years, both from Rush's home state of Illinois. In short, Rush complained about an all-white Senate in the only state with a track record of electing black senators. But this is what makes race-card politics so intractable: In the high-decibel discussions that follow any racial reference, we seldom include the actual details. The card grants its dealer immunity from his own record (for all his indignation, Rush did not even initially support Obama's 2004 Senate bid). It's difficult to assess how big a role Rush's comments played in the Burris affair because the Senate Democrats were on shaky legal footing, but the race card is there - a potent ingredient in the brew of law, political calculation and spin.

While most of the country spent the past year pondering Obama's relationship with white voters, it was his relationship with black leaders that held my attention. Last year, during the primaries, I talked to an old-school black politician who complained that the Obama campaign had not provided him with any "street money" - cash traditionally paid to local leaders and community organizers to get people to the polls. This would inevitably hurt the senator's chances of winning because, he said almost gleefully, "The change Obama wants is not here yet." The very fact of Obama's election in a country that once denied blacks the right to vote is a barometer of change. But in other ways, the old-schooler was right. Obama's attempt to change the tone of American politics runs into one cold reality: Divisiveness still works.

A week ago, Senate Democrats said that it would be very difficult to seat anyone appointed by Blagojevich. By Wednesday, we were treated to the sight of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid doing everything but composing sonnets to Burris: "He presents himself very well. He's very proud of his family. He's got two Ph.D.s and two law degrees. ..." This was, of course, shortly after the media spectacle of a harried and harassed Burris struggling to make his way to the Senate chamber. It didn't take much imagination to conjure visions of Little Rock in 1957 or black voters being turned away at the polls.

It's precisely because that history remains so vivid in our memory that Blagojevich's choice of Burris stings. African Americans have spent centuries struggling for inclusion, not for the right to be political cover for indicted governors. A scarier thought is that being connected to political grime is precisely what inclusion means. Take a random tour through the scrapbook of racial politics, from Ronald Reagan's "welfare queens" reference in 1980 to Bill Clinton and Sister Souljah in 1992. The race card has always yielded political benefits for those who deal it.

The irony, of course, is that after decades of white politicians using racial division to whip up their constituents, it has morphed into a card for black politicians to play as well. Last year, in the midst of the sex scandal that eventually drove him from office, former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick wailed that he had been the victim of numerous N-word assaults. (This may have been the case, but racism - in a majority-black city - did not compel him to have sex with a staffer and lie about it under oath.) Kilpatrick was forced to resign anyway, but he did succeed in momentarily knocking his political enemies back on their heels.

Only Burris knows why he accepted the Blagojevich offer (losing three runs for the governorship, one for the U.S. Senate and one for mayor of Chicago might have had something to do with it), but the benefits to Blagojevich are clear. The governor gets to thumb his nose at indignant Senate Democrats, at Obama (who said he thought Blagojevich should resign) and at Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (who informed on him). Rush gets to appear like a valiant crusader for black representation in the upper house of Congress. Everyone wins, except the people.

In this instance, we have the unique collaboration of a white politician and a black one, both benefiting from the race card. Perhaps change has come to America after all.

• William Jelani Cobb is an associate professor of history at Spelman College and the author of the forthcoming "Change Has Come: The End of the Civil Rights Movement and the New Black America."

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