The Race Card Returns

We live in hopeful times -- we are Americans after all -- and we should be thinking hopeful thoughts. On the historically depressing topic of race relations, we've been in a particularly hopeful place in the wake of the last election.

But if you need a gauge of exactly how anomalous Obama and his campaign were in the context of race, all you have to do is watch the chaos that now surrounds the process by which he will be replaced in the Senate.

Roland Burris will be, and rightly so, the next senator from Illinois. Despite all the bluster, the law and the politics are on his side, and the Senate will eventually have to seat him. The Democratic leadership has essentially conceded as much, but from the moment Gov. Rod Blagojevich named Burris, the fog of blatant, heavy-handed racial politics was going to be the insurance policy that would guarantee Burris, Obama's seat.

After two years of the Obama campaign flirting dangerously, yet successfully, with the idea that race can be neutralized in American politics, the Burris episode is a sharp reminder that race remains too irresistible a weapon for it to disappear from our politics and our life anytime soon. And that is more than a little depressing in this season of hope.

Interestingly, Burris had no reputation as a race hustler; in fact he was elected attorney general and state comptroller selling the same 'we're-all-Americans' confection that Obama used so effectively to get elected president. Since his appointment Burris has made the case, repeatedly, that he does not think that the Senate's initial refusal to seat him had anything to do with race, but the issue has been an inescapable part of the kabuki about whether he will be seated or not.

After first telling Burris that he should not even show up in Washington, Majority Leader Harry Reid and his deputy, Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, met with Burris and emerged from the meeting feeling compelled to address the race issue.

"Roland Burris, one of the first things he said to us, hey, this is nothing that's racial, I understand that," Reid said. "So a lot of people tried to make this a racial issue, but Roland Burris has not and will not."

Burris, it seemed, offered the leaders a measure of absolution: "The meeting we had this morning with Roland Burris was a very positive meeting. And at the outset, he said, 'I want to make it clear that I understand this controversy has nothing to do with my race, and I understand that both of you have excellent records when it comes to racial relations."

And in the end that is essentially what it comes down to -- our record on race relations. The history of racial disenfranchisement is so tightly woven into American politics that it is impossible to control contours of any discussion about race, and Blagojevich understood that when he was looking for a way to defy his detractors in Washington. Under indictment for corruption -- most immediately for alleged efforts to sell the Senate seat in question to the person who would provide the greatest personal gain -- Blago was cornered. He was denied the usual first defense that the indictment was a political witch hunt, because his harshest critics were fellow Democrats. The president-elect called on him to resign, as did Durbin, the senior senator. Reid cautioned Blagojevich not to appoint a senator, because anyone he chose would be tainted and would not be seated.

Blago was quiet for a while, even promising through his attorney that he would not pick a senator. But then he decided that he did have a hand to play after all and would take his turn: His ace? The race card, which whites can play too. He appointed Burris openly defying the Senate, which was once again all white, not to seat him. The press conference at which he made the announcement was a set piece right out of the sixties, more 1969 than 2009. Just to make sure his racial intentions were clear, conveniently planted in the audience was former Black Panther and current Congressman Bobby Rush, who spelled it out:

"My prayers have been answered," said Rush, who is still struggling with his speech after doctors removed a cancerous tumor from his jaw last summer. "I prayed fervently that the governor would continue the legacy established by President-elect Obama and that the governor would appoint an African American to complete the term of President Obama." The windup, then the pitch: "Let me just remind you," he continued, "that there presently is no African American in the U.S. Senate. Let me remind you that the state of Illinois and the people in the state of Illinois in their collective wisdom have sent two African Americans to the U.S. Senate. That makes a difference."

Suddenly, the ongoing comedy sketch that had been Blago's legal troubles morphed into a problem for Democrats from Obama to Reid to the leaders in control of the state legislature in Springfield.

The irony of course is that Barack Obama is going to be president; Illinois has sent to the Senate a full 66 percent of all the black senators to have served since Reconstruction; race should have been the most irrelevant factor in the choice to replace Obama. But, apparently, as long as there is a race card -- and there will be for a lot time -- it'll be impossible for the crooks and hustlers, the desperate and the ambitious, white and black alike, to resist the temptation to play it.