We have been through the three stages of racism and now, today, through several stages of trying to figure out whether Orlando Patterson is right about the Clintons.
Most decent Americans like to think they aren't racist and most decent Americans would like not to be. But it's so deep in the culture -- billboards, movies, songs, literature, schools -- that it would be really, really hard to avoid getting infected. You only have to return to America after spending time in a "post-racist" society to notice how bad it is here.
We think we could describe in detail the kind of racism the Clintons are willing to use, but what's more important is that they are using it right now to resume leadership. The Clinton campaign is bringing out the worst in us even as it encourages the media to do the same.
Orlando Patterson, at first glance, might seem to take too fine a filleting knife to the "red phone" ad the Clinton campaign has used so successfully. But after reading his rationale several times, we have to admit we think he's hit the nail on the head. "In my reading," Patterson writes, "the ad, in the insidious language of symbolism, says that Mr. Obama is himself the danger, the outsider within."
It is significant that the Clinton campaign used its telephone ad in Texas, where a Fox poll conducted Feb. 26 to 28 showed that whites favored Mr. Obama over Mrs. Clinton 47 percent to 44 percent, and not in Ohio, where she held a comfortable 16-point lead among whites. Exit polls on March 4 showed the ad’s effect in Texas: a 12-point swing to 56 percent of white votes toward Mrs. Clinton. It is striking, too, that during the same weekend the ad was broadcast, Mrs. Clinton refused to state unambiguously that Mr. Obama is a Christian and has never been a Muslim.
Look at the ease with which the Clinton campaign and the media have slid into the Hillary-first-Barack-second language -- "get back, get back." Clinton is seen as the "real" candidate and Obama as the come-from-behind guy in "second place" even though, from the first caucus onward, Obama has been even with Clinton or well ahead in three key factors: numbers of states won, number of pledged delegates, and margin of wins. Not to mention the staggering numbers of contributors to his campaign.
Both are first-time candidates for their party's nomination, but Obama remains "the challenger," the guy in back in the New Yorker cover. The explanation would be that Clinton was the "presumptive winner" and remains the "presumptive winner" because of the ability of Democratic party machinery to arrange, through loyal super delegates and credentials gate-keepers, that the "race" candidate ceases to be a political risk "at this time." There's always a next time, a coming generation which might open the gate.
We are clinging to racism in part because so many of us have never had the experience and the revelation of living in a society where one is free of it. To get rid of it, finally, we have to admit it's there and that we are being manipulated by a series of poor quality leaders for whom racism, used carefully, remains a tempting, indispensable tool.
Update: Andrew Sullivan puts the Clintons right in the middle of the racism controversy. Pretty ugly stuff.