It's Not All Racism

It's Not All Racism

By Richard Reeves - September 19, 2009

LOS ANGELES -- Jimmy Carter once promised he would never lie to us. But he has been known to exaggerate a bit. I think he did that in proclaiming that opposition to President Obama and his agenda of change is "overwhelmingly" because of the president's race.

"Change" is the key word here. There are certainly people out there who cannot stand the idea of an African-American living in the White House. But there are a lot more, I believe, who really think this guy is going to ruin the country they love, or the country they imagine or remember.

Some of them are just nuts. But there is certainly nothing new about that. Populism and suspicion (or hatred) of real or perceived elites is as old as the Republic. If Obama were a white Harvard Law School graduate, there would be just as much anger and fear about change. The passion and paranoia might not be as deep, but it would be there. After all, Richard Hofstadter wrote "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life" and "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" in the early 1960s.

My own memories of the dark side of populism do not go back to angry farmers in the 19th century or Father Coughlin in the mid-20th century, but covering George Wallace's presidential campaigns was a pretty good primer. What I remember was my introduction to nutcake radio in the 1972 campaign.

As a New York Times reporter, I drove across the Florida panhandle, from Tallahassee to Pensacola, listening to the beginnings of talk radio. On WMEN, 1330 on the dial, I listened to "Call and Comment," billed as "Tallahassee's most listened-to show." A caller began: "I want to talk about all these candidates down here ... About this fellow Edmund Muskie. I heard his name is really Muskovich and he came from Russia."

The host replied: "Well, what if he is a Russian? Would that affect your vote?"

"Possibly," said the caller. "Possibly."

"There you have it, listeners. The question is whether Muskie's real name is Muskovich and did he come from Russia? The lines are open. ..."

Down the road, I switched to "What's on Your Mind?" on WFTW in Fort Walton Beach. There callers were debating whether a President John Lindsay would name Huey Newton of the Black Panthers as secretary of defense and Fidel Castro as ambassador to the United Nations.

Ah, freedom of speech! Between them, Muskie, a senator from Maine, and Lindsay, the mayor of New York, both white men, got 16 percent of the vote. Gov. George Wallace of Alabama carried every county in Florida. That was also the time that produced Jimmy Carter, who was then governor of Georgia, projecting himself as the anti-Wallace.

I assume that there are still and will continue to be enough angry people to keep Rush Limbaugh living in the style to which he has become accustomed. The Rusty DePasses we will always have with us. DePass, in case you missed it, is a South Carolina Republican activist who used Facebook to comment on a gorilla escaping from a zoo, saying, "I'm sure it's just one of Michelle's ancestors, probably harmless."

I don't think he meant Michelle Pfeiffer.

The DePass quote was used in London's Financial Times, where writer Toby Harnden offered an opinion I agreed with: "Has America really turned around and stumbled back into the sulphurous swamps of racial hatred? The short answer is no."

The long answer is that we have come a long way out of the swamp. My students at the University of Southern California often look at me in disbelief when I talk about race in "the good old days." And now? Racists there still are, but there are many fewer of them and they are aging. Nuts there still are, and their numbers may be flaring at the moment. But if the economy continues to look better -- and more importantly, feel better to "ordinary" Americans -- if health care is settled as an American right, if Obama is clever enough to find a road out of Afghanistan, those numbers and the passions of the day will be seen as more of a blip than a growing movement.

Copyright 2009, Universal Press Syndicate

Richard Reeves

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