You’ve all heard it endlessly by now, the Republican attack on Barack Obama which maintains that he has no experience in running a government or a business, and thus is too inexperienced to be President. Now aside from the inanity of this argument, especially when considering the opposite argument employed for Sarah Palin—CEO of Alaska, with a population (around 600,000) smaller than most cities, and Mayor of Wasilla, with a population (6,000) smaller than most colleges—there is a coded message here that is necessary for Americans to understand.
“Inexperience,” when applied to Barack Obama, is code for “race.”
Let me explain with an example. Prior to World War II, the United States Navy was desperately searching for boats to supplement its vastly under-equipped Navy. It began to inspect fishing boats, among them the large purse seiners used by hundreds of Sicilian fishermen along the west coast. The Navy would eventually requisition hundreds of such boats and outfit them as mine sweepers, but before it did, it considered whether it would, like England, induct not just the boats but their crews as well. A February 1939 memo from Admiral Hepburn, commandant of the 12th Naval District, summarizes the Navy’s findings, including its assessment of the Sicilian fishermen it might wish to induct. Here is part of what it said:
“The majority of Italians are not good seamen, good fishermen, nor good navigators. They are not over-intelligent, do not know the Rules of the Road, and, in general, appear to have the characteristics of big, overgrown children….” (see my “Fish Story,” in Lawrence DiStasi, UNA STORIA SEGRETA , for more details.)
Based on such assessments, the Navy decided that it would requisition the boats alright, but not these “child-like” Sicilians, a group that was, at that very time, presiding over the most efficient and opulent sardine fishing industry the world has ever seen.
This type of more subtle racism has been thoroughly analyzed by David A.J. Richards in his 1999 book, “Italian American: The Racializing of an Ethnic Group.” In that book, Richards argued that phrases like “big, overgrown children” really represent a judgment that a group is developmentally inferior, even genetically incomplete. This means that its members never quite reach the full mental and moral development that would make them truly adult, i.e. truly human. African Americans, Native Americans, and, in their turn, many immigrant groups like Italians and Latin Americans have been judged in exactly this way.
Now we come back to the code for Obama. The term “inexperienced,” I would maintain, when applied to Obama, means not just that he has never been a CEO. It cuts deeper, cuts to a place that most Americans understand, if not consciously, then subliminally. And what it is meant to signify is that this man, Harvard-educated or not, U.S. Senator or not, lacks the full development that one finds most ideally in white people—Sarah Palin, for instance. No matter what he does, no matter how eloquently he can speak, therefore, he can never quite rise to the level of full humanity signified by whiteness. That’s because as a black man, by (America’s) definition, he is lacking in those adult qualities of mind and morality that America must have in its president.
Of course, not John McCain nor Sarah Palin nor even the vicious conservative shock jocks could say this outright. That would be racism, and so toxic is this label that even Obama’s comment about not being the right “type” elicited a “reverse racism” accusation from the outraged McCain. No, the Republican slime machine is too canny for that. So it uses code. This year the code word is “inexperienced.” During the Reagan campaign, it was “welfare queens.” George H.W. Bush employed the now-infamous Willie Horton commercial, suggesting that his opponent, Michael Dukakis, would free black rapists. And our dear George, G.W., not only spread racial slurs in the Carolinas to sink McCain’s surging campaign for the nomination (McCain was said to have a black child), but then employed several techniques to disenfranchise mostly black urban voters in Florida, Ohio, and elsewhere in order to steal one, and probably two elections. These slimy tactics are still going on, the latest being the Republican ploy of requiring all voters to display photo IDs allegedly to “ensure against election fraud” (though hardly a single case of election fraud has ever been demonstrated in states with these requirements, like Indiana.) But in reality the tactic is meant to discourage as many inner-city black voters (who almost universally vote Democratic) as possible from attempting to vote. More generally, it is no secret that the Republican Party’s southern strategy—to incite the racial animosity and fear still prevalent in southern and Midwestern states—has been the key to its ability to win elections since Nixon first employed it in 1968.
So count on it. You will hear the “inexperienced” slur against Obama repeatedly, daily, without letup. And to the increasingly fearful white populace of the heartland it will signify what it has always signified: in the United States of America, a black man simply does not have the mental, moral, or emotional heft to be fully human, much less to be the highest official in the land.