Obama's Racial Catch-22

You've probably seen it by now: the images of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton dissolving into footage of Barack Obama's speech in Berlin, as a voice dripping with sarcasm proclaims, "He's the biggest celebrity in the world." The McCain campaign's "Britney" ad lays out a series of objections about Obama, questioning whether he's "ready to lead" and criticizing his opposition to offshore drilling.

But what's garnered the most attention is the juxtaposition of Obama with two white women known for their sex appeal. Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo compared the ad to the infamous Harold Ford "Call Me" ads that ran in 2006, and Rick Perlstein of the Campaign for America's Future concurred that the ad was playing off stereotypes about black male sexuality. The New York Times and CNN'sJack Cafferty also saw parallels with the Ford ads. The critics are correct in noting that a racial dimension is certainly present. The problem is that they interpret the ad as channeling fears of miscegenation, when in fact it is operating on an entirely different but utterly familiar racial dynamic: the idea that black success, by definition, hurts white interests.

The rapturous coverage of the Obama campaign during the primary was less about Obama himself than it was America congratulating itself for being willing to consider a black man for president, with the subtext being that the United States had finally liberated itself from its racist past. It established an unspoken contract that Obama's success was proof that racism is no longer a serious problem, thus preempting any further discussion on the subject. But even as the mainstream media all but trumpeted his nomination as the end of racism in the United States, Obama continues to face a series of arbitrary and shifting public tests merely because he is black. His dilemma remains that the only way to succeed is to pretend that this double standard does not exist. He has to extricate himself from an ongoing racial competition between blacks and whites, where the prosperity of one is seen as detrimental to the other. The paradox is that by succeeding, Obama has raised the white anxiety about his presence to a level at which it can be exploited as resentment.

To put the "Britney" ad in context, and to understand the troubling racial dynamic that is fertile ground for exploitation by the GOP, it's helpful to consider the concept of "Jockey Syndrome." In his book 40 Million Dollar Slaves, journalist William C. Rhoden chronicles the history of (mostly male) African Americans in sports. He defines Jockey Syndrome, as what occurs when "the establishment attempts to change the rules when the competition begins to gain ground." It refers specifically to the phenomenon of changing the rules in certain sports to end black American dominance, which began with the expulsion of black jockeys from equestrian sports at the turn of the century. Once white athletic dominance was re-established through changing the rules of the game, declining black prowess was held up as proof of black inferiority.

Jockey Syndrome is easily applicable to many situations involving race relations in America -- look no further than the constantly shifting and often arbitrary expectations for Obama. When it came to coverage of his trip to Europe, the question of whether he could be "presidential" abroad immediately gave way to questions of whether the impression he made was too good. Last week, The Wall Street Journal ran an article on whether the candidate is "too fit" to be president. From flag pins to pledges of allegiance, Obama has been forced through a series of arbitrary public tests because of his race, where even his obvious strengths inspire questions about his leadership. Ironically, his tendency to meet or exceed expectations in many of these instances is precisely what makes the "Britney" ad possible.

In sports, white resentment about black success lays the groundwork for Jockey Syndrome. We're seeing the same thing play out in politics. It is Obama's success, and the potential discomfort that it engenders among white people, that the ad is trying to appeal to. It's very much like the racially charged sentiments of some white basketball fans that black basketball players are overpaid. No one resents franchise owners for being fantastically rich, the same way no one resents McCain for being fantastically rich, because presumably, their riches are "deserved." But fans do resent the players for million-dollar salaries the same way the Obamas are resented as elitists for owning one nice home. (See the bitter description of the Obamas' house in this Washington Post article: how dare they have a skylight!). By comparing Obama to Paris and Britney, McCain's latest ad implies that the attention given to Obama is undeserved, the result of "natural" assets rather than hard work, much like these "spoiled" athletes who "get paid too much."

The Britney ad is a result of the ongoing meme in this election that Obama's success, like that of "overpaid black athletes," is an affront to hardworking white people everywhere. The ad never mentions Obama's race as the source of his celebrity, but it doesn't have to -- it's been part of the campaign long enough for the point to be implicit. In short, this ad is Geraldine Ferraro's attack done "right," in the sense that it does not directly implicate the McCain campaign as exploiting racial tensions.

The McCain campaign's apparently race-neutral approach, and its subsequent accusation that the Obama campaign is playing the race card, is a well-thought-out strategy -- it is pure Nixon. In his recent chronicle of conservative political history in The New Yorker, George Packer describes Pat Buchanan's plan for exploiting political divisions, particularly ones of a racial nature. Buchanan's assessment was that they could "cut the Democratic Party and country in half; my view is that we would have far the larger half."

In a dispute about race, the McCain campaign knows it will end up with the larger half. For the most part, most white people's experience with race isn't one of racial discrimination. They can only relate to racial discrimination in the abstract. What white people can relate to is the fear of being unjustly accused of racism. This is the larger half. This is why allegations of racism often provoke more outrage than actual racism, because most of the country can relate to one (the accusation of racism) easier than the other (actual racism). For this reason, in a political conflict over race, the McCain campaign has the advantage, because saying the race card has been played is actually the ultimate race card.

This is another reason why Barack Obama's unsolicited remarks about how Republicans might use race against him were so ill-advised and a troubling departure from his standard approach to race. Perhaps the endless stereotypes and double standards he faces as a black candidate -- accusations of being a Muslim, of being a black separatist, of being arrogant -- have taken their toll. Directly acknowledging these stereotypes and double standards would be even more dangerous for Obama, because many white people see his campaign as proof that these types of racism no longer exist, which is unfortunately part of his emotional appeal as a candidate. This is why the campaign needs to avoid dealing with race in the context of his rivalry with McCain whenever possible.

The brother needs to keep it together. There's simply no way he can win this one. It's in the Obama campaign's interest to keep the conversation on matters of policy, where it has an advantage not yet reflected in the polls, rather than parse the racism of the Britney ad. On McCain's signature issue, he's been forced to concede major points to Obama -- a timetable for withdrawal and an escalation of troop presence in Afghanistan. But instead of discussing McCain's policy shortcomings, the campaign finds itself fending off accusations of "playing the race card," which could be disastrous for it, precisely because Obama is seen as the beneficiary of America's racial enlightenment.

This is not to say that all Democrats should avoid discussing race in the context of the campaign, something that is neither possible nor desirable. But they need to resist the temptation to engage in protracted battles with the McCain campaign about racism directed at their candidate, because the nation's demographics and the circumstances of Obama's rise make it difficult if not impossible to win the argument. Instead, they should attempt to focus the conversation back to policy questions. Democrats have a candidate who is sophisticated in his understanding of policy, and Republicans have a candidate who is still largely running on his biography as a war hero, whose only coherent and consistent remaining policy position is support for offshore drilling. Driving home that point will become increasingly difficult if McCain is re-energized by the presence of white voters who are themselves anxious about being seen as racist. From their point of view, Obama's presence on the national stage is proof that any charge of racism on their behalf is frivolous. This is nonsense, but there's nothing really that can be done about it.

Presumably, Obama knew that this was a part of the game when he signed up. He had to, because black folks live with it every day. It's probably best for the members of Obama's campaign to do what most people do when confronted with this kind of casual racism -- shake their heads and move on. Anything more is playing into a game they can't possibly win.

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