AP Analysis: the Racism in Palin’s Attacks on Bill Ayers

Associated Press writer Douglass K. Daniel yesterday writes about how Palin’s attacks on Barack Obama’s relationship with University of Chicago Prof. William Ayers embed negative racial connotations without resorting to “overt racism.”

Palin’s words avoid repulsing voters with overt racism. But is there another subtext for creating the false image of a black presidential nominee “palling around” with terrorists while assuring a predominantly white audience that he doesn’t see their America?

In a post-Sept. 11 America, terrorists are envisioned as dark-skinned radical Muslims, not the homegrown anarchists of Ayers’ day 40 years ago. With Obama a relative unknown when he began his campaign, the Internet hummed with false e-mails about ties to radical Islam of a foreign-born candidate.

Whether intended or not by the McCain campaign, portraying Obama as “not like us” is another potential appeal to racism. It suggests that the Hawaiian-born Christian is, at heart, un-American.

Most troubling, however, is how allowing racism to creep into the discussion serves McCain’s purpose so well. As the fallout from Wright’s sermons showed earlier this year, forcing Obama to abandon issues to talk about race leads to unresolved arguments about America’s promise to treat all people equally.

Republican strategist Joe Gaylord is quoted in the article saying that it’s a “legitimate strategy to talk about Obama and to talk about his background and who he pals around with.”

UPDATE: Adding commentary by Camille Z. Charles, the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor in the Social Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania:

Of course there’s racial subtext! Right or wrong, character and “guilt by association” attacks are commonplace in presidential campaigns, but that doesn’t mean that such attacks cannot and/or do not also tap into white voters’ racial fears and resentments.

Republicans and their allies mastered the subtle. implicit racial appeal that has “plausible deniability” more than a century ago: the most (in)famous example being the Willie Horton ad in 1988. The recent attacks by Governor Sarah Palm are a prime example of this approach.

From the outset, McCain-Palin have emphasized their own patriotism with the catchy Country First slogan, sending an implicit message that their opponent is unpatriotic or un-American. Plausible deniability? Easy, it isn’t about race, it’s about being patriotic and loving America; they never even mention race and they don’t have to because you can just look at him and see that he’s, well, black. When questioned about potentially racial motives, they simply respond: What are you saying? That everything is racial? Really, he’s the one “playing the race card.” Sound familiar?

What Republican strategists are counting on is voters’ tendency to equate “American” and “patriotic” with, well, being white. So, the catchy slogan, the emphasis on McCain’s military/POW experience. and Palm’s hockey-mom-who’s-just-like-us-and-knows-our-story persona all send the message that they are real Americans. Implicit in all this is that Senator Obama is, well, not. Remember the uproar over the flag pin? Same thing. Nobody cared that HRC was often sans flag pin.

Obama’s “associations” with Rev. Jeremiah Wright (e.g., “God damn America”) and William Avers (former member of the Weather Underground and the “terrorist” that Obama “pals around with”) are offered as evidence of his lack of patriotism. (Never mind that he’s severed ties with Wright, barely knows Ayers, or that Palin and her husband have a real tie to the API, an organized political party with an anti-American platform that advocates Alaska’s secession from the United States! Oops—sorry. I digress).

That one man is African American and the other is white is a perk for Republicans—allowing them to play on whites’ racial fears again without ever mentioning race. The three of them are angry, dangerous and anti-American. Wright’s inflammatory rhetoric and Ayers’ criminal past both targeted America, so the message goes. These men are angry, dangerous, and clearly hate America; Senator Obama is guilty by association and the American people need to be warned (did I mention that Palin says Obama is “dangerous”?). Plausible deniability? This matters no matter what color they are! Bill Ayers isn’t even black, so how are we playing the race-card? But hey, two out of three aint bad and, you know, they are angry and dangerous and unpatriotic …

Preying on (some) whites’ nagging feeling that they “don’t really know” or “can’t be sure they can trust” Senator Obama perpetuates racial tensions and divisions that most of us long to be rid of; doing it “on the down-low” is dishonest. How un-American.

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