It must have been galling for the Republicans to see so many blacks voting for their own in the 2008 presidential election. The returns must have struck many Republicans as unfair, even undemocratic. Nothing else can explain the way the Republicans have allowed racism to stain their campaign against President Obama for a second term. No one likes to throw around so nasty an accusation, but I don’t know what else it is.
Take Mitt Romney’s leaden joke the other week about no one asking to see his birth certificate in Michigan. That alluded to the stubborn refusal of some Tea Bagger Republicans to believe Obama was born in the United States. These Birthers are not really concerned with legal niceties; they are not trying to drive Obama out of office as an alien and thus unconstitutional president. Instead, as Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial page editor of the New York Times, said in his blog recently, “The point is to remind voters that his father was Kenyan and that Mr. Obama is a man of mixed race and brown skin. It’s racism, pure and simple.” Romney’s joking embrace of the Birthers was unfortunate and very unfunny.
But it was not surprising. The birth certificate doubters, after all, are just the most extreme and absurd of those who insist that Obama is not as American as the rest of us. Most Republicans, whether they believe it or not, have been pushing that line for a long time.
“2016: Obama’s America,” the movie showing in theaters during the campaign, makes the case that Obama’s attitude and policies are based on the anti-colonial attitude of the Kenyan father whom he barely knew. Dinesh D’Souza, the conservative guru and Romney supporter who made the movie, insists that Obama’s ideology is “remote to America” and “separate from American thought.” Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who admires D’Souza’s conclusions, has often accused Obama of exhibiting “Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior.” John Sununu, the former governor of New Hampshire who is campaigning for Romney, told reporters in July, “I wish this president would learn how to be an American.” He later apologized for the remark, but I have no doubt he meant it. While introducing Romney to the Republican National Convention, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said that Obama’s policies were based on “ideas that people come to America to get away from.” Romney himself has described Obama as someone “who takes his cues from the Social Democrats of Europe.”
Yet, if you wanted to make a case for un-American genes, it would be just as easy to smear Romney. After all, his grandfather, hunted by U.S. officials for his defiant polygamy, fled to Mexico and joined a Mormon colony there. Romney’s father was born in Mexico and moved to the United States only when the bloody turmoil of the Mexican Revolution frightened his family. On top of this, Mitt Romney spent a couple of years as a Mormon missionary in France. Surely minds as fertile as those of D’Souza and Gingrich could conjure up an anti-federal, gringo hating, Third Worldish, French-loving Mitt Romney. But, despite all the bitterness of the protracted Republican primary battling, no one did. They would have been laughed and shamed off their platform if they had. Anyone can look at Mitt Romney and know he’s American. But Barack Obama? That’s a different matter.
All the garbage about Obama’s birthplace, his anti-colonialism, his love of European institutions and his lack of ease in America are powered by racism and nothing else.
In another side to electoral racism, the relentless Republican drive to require voters to show photo identification is obviously aimed at decreasing the number of African-American and Hispanic votes in the election. Of course, Republican governors and state legislators insist otherwise. They claim photo identification is required to prevent voter fraud. But it is a cynical claim, for all evidence indicates that voter fraud is practically non-existent in the United States. In 2011, eight states (seven run by Republican governors) enacted new laws requiring photo identification. In all, 17 states (fifteen run by Republican governors) now require such identification. The courts have delayed implementation in some states, but the requirement could still prove decisive elsewhere.
The new rash of legislation prevents the poorest blacks and Hispanics from voting because they often lack driver’s licenses or passports. Most states will supply free identification cards but they are usually cumbersome to obtain. The whole ID business carries the nauseating smell of the old poll tax, one of the most despicable obstacles to black voting in the South in the era of Jim Crow.
A more subtle form of racism comes in the incessant television ads that accuse Obama of eliminating the requirement that welfare recipients find work. The accusation, as many news organizations have pointed out, is 100 % false. But that has not discouraged the Romney campaign from repeating the ad often. “Under Obama’s plan,” the ad says, “you wouldn’t have to work and you wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you a check and welfare-to-work goes back to being plain old welfare.” The ad, while not racist itself, is designed to awaken clichéd images in some white voters of lazy blacks lolling around while collecting government checks. And these are images that stir resentment against the Democratic Party and Obama. The Romney campaign, which tests the effectiveness of these ads with thorough polling, denies they have anything to do with race. But, as Ron Fournier of the National Journal puts it, “That ad is exploiting the worst instincts of white voters — as predicted and substantiated by the Republican Party’s own polling.”
We do not know whether racism will play a crucial role in the election results. But it has been a dispiriting campaign, packed with lies, and racism increases the gloom. It would be awful and hopelessly harmful if the results rewarded the offenders.