The rejection of an attempt to use a fear-generating slur in the campaign for the White House over the past few weeks may represent a change of conditions in US electoral politics. A photograph of presidential hopeful Senator Barack Obama dressed in traditional Somali tribal grab was leaked to the press, which led many to assume that its release was contemptibly tailored to connote an implicit association between Muslims and the Senator. At the same time, Republican candidate John McCain felt obliged to distance himself from conservative commentator Bill Cunningham, who, when referring to Obama, deliberately brought up the Senator's middle name, Hussein. This behavior was also noticed and condemned by the Republican National Committee chair. The coincidence of Senator Obama's middle name being the same as the executed dictator of Iraq has been seized upon by opponents of the Senator to play upon ethnic and religious hatred. However, this tendency is also being noted and condemned by both parties. Has the day come where solid anti-racist politics now dominate the mainstream? The answer is not a simple "yes" or "no."
To see many Americans speaking out against divisive racist politics indicates a progressive trend in national politics. Racism has long been an impediment to serious progressive reform in our country. Attacks on welfare have historically been directed at people of color, despite the majority of public assistance recipients (and the majority of America's poor) being white. Conversely, it is also important to remember the nasty legacy of white privilege in the leadership of grassroots social movements. As the GOP leadership openly moves away from bigots attempting to use anti-Muslim prejudice against Obama, we feel justified in questioning their motives.
The Republicans have taken key polls to find that they can no longer get away with blatantly "playing the race card." "Willie Horton"-type advertisements, patterned after those used against Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in 1988, are increasingly unlikely to be widely accepted. Americans have become more sensitive to and more willing to publicly condemn racism, even if they do not acknowledge its lasting legacy. The GOP has had to rely on the words of its fringe elements to spark a nasty discourse to play on the emotions of the electorate.
Recent e-mails to the O'Reilly Factor indicated that some Americans could not see the difference between a racist act and a move to play on racism. The letters to our "friend" Bill O' questioned what was inherently racist about circulating a picture of Senator Obama in African dress. Of course, the picture itself is not bigoted, but its circulator's intention was to turn people against the Obama campaign by appealing to existing prejudices against Muslims. We must face that fact.
As long as the right wing attempts to manipulate American nascent fears of Islam and black people, socialists must openly move against such behavior. Racism has been institutionalized so that it can be used to justify oppression and divide those who should share a common struggle for justice, while maintaining white superiority in the labor and financial markets. Socialists must remind our fellow citizens that we do not live in a color-blind society, even if we wish it were so. We must recognize racism's lingering effects on our national psyche – as the Obama campaign's aforementioned detractors illustrate – and the need to defend social programs like Affirmative Action and scholastic minority grants to address labor-market inequality. We will continue to fight reactionary politicians' attempts to use racism to promote their agendas and feed on the vestiges of cultural ignorance.
Written by the YDS Anti-Racism Committee