Bullshit Philosophy

Half-assed political and religious commentary from a cynical left-winger

BLAST FROM THE PAST: Race, Obama, and My Family

Posted by Kevin on December 20, 2008

[originally posted 7/9/08]

The following is a conversation I had with Rebecca not long ago, recounting a brief exchange with my grandfather earlier that day:

Me: Was it just me, or did Grandpa actually say something positive about Barack Obama?
Rebecca: No, I think he just said that Obama will probably win.
Me: Yeah, you might be right. That doesn’t necessarily mean he wants Obama to win.
Rebecca: At least Grandpa didn’t call him th n-word.
Me [surprised] Yeah, that’s a definite improvement!

Grandpa’s never been particularly fond of black people – I grew up regularly hearing him drop the n-bomb – so it surprised me to hear anything other than utter contempt for Obama. [This is the guy who was upset in 2004 that he had to vote for a black guy for US Senate no matter which party he went with – it was Obama vs. Alan Keyes at the time. I admit to having been pretty amused.] I don’t challenge him on racism, because I know it wouldn’t get me anywhere. He’s in his 80’s now, he grew up in a different time, he’s probably not going to change anytime soon.

The rest of my family definitely isn’t fond of Obama either, but of course they’ll swear up and down that it has nothing to do with racism. And of course they’re full of shit. They may not be as open about it as Grandpa – only a very small number of white Americans actually admit to conscious feelings of racial superiority – and in fact my dad and others sometimes make fun of Grandpa’s blatant racism. But they really just do a better job of rationalizing it.

“Most anti-semites and racists don’t think they are anti-semites and racists. Sometimes it comes out in anger, when they aren’t thinking clearly and they kind of clap their hands over their mouths… and whisper, “did I say that?” Others think they are making reasonable observations and that those who object are being peculiarly sensitive. They search for justifications and usually claim victim status themselves at the hands of the PC police.” Digby

My family tends toward the latter group, and going back to Obama, it’s instructive to watch how they search for any justification, no matter how crazy, to avoid supporting a black presidential candidate. A few weeks back my dad summed up pretty succinctly why he’s anti-Obama: “He’s a Muslim, he’s unpatriotic, and he only cares about blacks and Muslims.”

Yes, they bought the whole madrassa smear, and no amount of evidence seems to be able to dissuade them. Apparently CNN’s definitive debunking of the smear is less reliable than a chain email. I regularly get those crazy right-wing forwards from my dad and grandma, so in between emails about how all Hispanics are potential drug dealers I get to hear about how, gasp, Obama didn’t have his hand over his heart during the anthem! This is where the “unpatriotic” part comes from. This was a BIG issue with my family. Who cares about health care or war, Obama’s not blindly nationalistic enough for their tastes. The stupid award in this category goes to my cousin Penny for declaring that this shows how Obama “won’t do anything for his country.”

Why do they freak out so much over stuff like this? One possible answer is that patriotism and religion are being used as proxies for race in the presidential election:

“Sen. Barack Obama… is the only candidate for president who feels compelled to tell crowds he took the oath of office on the Bible, not the Koran. That he’s not a radical Muslim intent on taking over the United States from within. That he does, indeed, recite the Pledge of Allegiance, with his hand over his heart…

While not overtly racial, the chain e-mails seek to exploit Obama’s skin color, his name and his lineage. They challenge Obama’s efforts to portray himself as a composite of America, rather than an outlier.

Michael Dawson, an expert in race and politics at the University of Chicago, said the falsehoods are likely to raise doubts among people who, because of Obama’s race, aren’t quite comfortable with him anyway.

Concerns about Obama’s religion and patriotism are largely a defense mechanism, because driving those concerns are the same thing that drives racism: fear of anything that doesn’t look and act like oneself.

This list of purported quotes from Obama’s books, which I received from relatives, provides another good example of their defense mechanisms. As the Snopes article just linked to shows, “these cherry-picked statements are all presented devoid of context, and some of them are reworded from the original (or apparently non-existent).” But the point of this email is pretty clearly so they can claim, “See? He’s the racist, not me! Therefore I’m not racist for opposing him!” I’m pretty sure this is where my dad got his idea that Obama “only cares about blacks and Muslims.”

All of this has put me in an odd position. Lately I’ve started firing back at my relatives with forwards of my own in an attempt to push them towards Obama and/or away from John McCain, which might seem contradictory since readers of this blog known I’m not all that fond of Obama myself. It certainly FEELS weird.

The problem for me is that, in my view, they’re opposed to Obama for all the wrong reasons. I’d like it if they supported Cynthia McKinney, but I know that if they don’t like Obama then they REALLY won’t like her. It’s all about baby steps. As much as Obama disgusts me these days, I’d rather see them support him than McCain. It’s anyone’s guess as to whether I’m having an effect, but it’s better than doing nothing.


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