The squabble that broke out between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton last week over Obama’s appeal to the memory of Martin Luther King, and Hillary’s veiled belittling of King by invoking the greater importance of President Lyndon Johnson, reminded me of the key fact of American life: racism and the many disguises it takes, its long and agonizing history, its continuing ability to corrupt our lives. Though the Clintons have twisted and contorted themselves in defending their camp’s attacks, the basic truth remains: Obama needed to be attacked because of his Iowa victory, and the simplest and most effective way to attack someone in America is to bring up the specter of racial difference.
What this means is that, for all the gains recorded by the civil rights movement and the legal and social constraints imposed on racial discrimination in the United States, racism is alive and well and still capable of sinking anyone or any initiative that threatens the safe distance from “other races” maintained by the majority of Americans. I am not talking only about the South here. Even in a city as diligently integrated as Berkeley California, every resident knows exactly where the racial line stands. East Berkeley, in the hills, is the domain of wealthy whites. West Berkeley, in the flatlands, is the domain of blacks. Everyone knows what the “good” neighborhoods are, where they end, where the “questionable” areas begin. And though whites may live in such questionable areas for reasons of economics or philosophy, most automatically steer clear. It is thus in every city in the United States. Being an American means, literally, knowing where the “good” sections of any city or suburb lie. Though the lines may shift, every American always knows precisely where the current ones are drawn. And if one is not sure, one can always find out from friends, relatives, or real estate agents.
This is what is meant by “white privilege.” White people in America take it for granted that they have the right to live in a “good” neighborhood; indeed, have the obligation not to live in a “bad” neighborhood.
Politics in the last forty or so years has been predicated on this knowledge, on the underlying fears that the system of separation might be breached, and on the appeals to those fears. The entire Republican Party strategy—especially its “southern strategy” whereby it took from the Democratic Party its traditional dominance in the South—has been predicated on coded appeals to racial prejudice and fear. States’ rights, school voucher programs, diatribes against “welfare queens,” jeremiads about urban crime, implementation of “three-strike laws,” all are symbolic appeals to the racist roots of this nation which hold that blackness signals genetic defect, that urban blackness equals crime, that the mixing of races leads to moral decay. All the talk about “strict construction” of the Constitution notwithstanding, the real bedrock behind the conservative movement is its conviction and sly innuendo that “liberal” equals miscegenation.
It is for this reason that Barack Obama, even with his flaws, is necessary as the Democratic nominee for President. It is time for this nation, and particularly its Republican establishment, to be called on its coded racism. It is time for the nation to see just how and why racism persists, and whether the United States of America now has the moral courage to stand up for the equality it proclaims as its central creed. The candidacy of Barack Obama—regardless of his attempt to avoid any appeals to racial argument or sympathy—can and will bring these conflicts and contradictions into the open. It will soon—as soon as the Republicans have a nominee, that is—become apparent how deep and abiding is the fear of a black man in the White house. How deep and abiding is the racial sentiment underlying even “liberal” thought. Indeed, we have already seen this in the Clinton campaign. Imagine what “swift-boating” lies ahead when Republicans get their war machine untracked.
But far from being discouraged by this, by the potential of losing the White House because of its nomination of a black candidate, the Democratic Party should exult in it. If the Democratic Party means anything at all, if America means anything at all, it should, it must take this rare opportunity to directly challenge its own reigning orthodoxy. For at this moment in our history, when the moral face of America has been so bloodied by the Bush Administration’s depradations in the Middle East, by its destruction of constitutional guarantees at home, nothing else will do. Absent some sign of moral courage, America will become what it already has for much of the world: just another empire driven to extremes of cruelty and plunder, corruption and hypocrisy in its waning days.