Despite stark philosophical differences, Democrats and Republicans are recognizing a bipartisan lesson: Injecting race into American politics is treacherous terrain.
When Democrats allege racial bias in conservative criticisms of the president, it makes Mr. Obama seem thin-skinned, like a petulant Black seeking affirmative action in his press coverage.
When Republicans use race-inflected messages to attack Democratic policies, and the president himself, they potentially appear all the more extremist, like a desperate opposition party whose rhetoric grows shrill in proportion to its declining numbers.
President Obama refuses to attribute any racial bias to his virulent immigration- and heathcare-reform critics. Meanwhile, GOP Chair Michael Steele scolds the President for “playing the race card.”
Obama and Steele are ideologically and temperamentally worlds apart. But the two party chiefs share canny similarities. Their race symbolizes a sense of inclusion and diversity, while their career ascent is predicated on a widespread perception: Neither has a racial agenda or investment in minority concerns. Each explicitly appeals to moderate whites. And both are affable black men whose personal appeal and political fortunes illustrate the Marshmallow Center.
To court moderate and “swing” white voters, politicians tack to the Marshmallow Center. Occupying the middle road, the Marshmallow Center tries to be the most amount of things to the most amount of (white) people. This political outlook soothes the guilt of some whites and skillfully panders to the racial fears of others. This brand of racial centrism champions “color-blind” perspectives, policies, and politicians, thus enabling racial erasure: It grants ordinary whites, and the pols who woo them, the license to deny that race is a factor in their decision-making and to minimize it in public debate.
To be sure, the Marshmallow Center is a far cry from race’s previous spell on national politics. “End Forced Busing!” “States’ Rights!” “Contain Urban Crime!” Through most of 20th Century history, racism dictated both parties’ flirtations with white voters.
Campaigning for reelection in 1972, Richard Nixon understood the emergence of a suburban nation in turmoil, launching populist-singed rebukes against the Democratic Party. He beseeched “those millions who have been driven out of their home in the Democratic Party to join us as members of a new American majority.” He derided his opponent, George McGovern, as the champion of high taxes, income redistribution, violent urban crime, an impotent national defense, declining morality, fascist busing, and racial quotas.
The quickly growing and suburbanizing Sunbelt—that vast swath of America stretching from Georgia all the way west to Nevada—became fertile ground for the tax revolt of the 1970s. Speaking in Atlanta, weeks before Election Day, Nixon rallied the national “silent majority” of whites, who he believed wanted more “law and order” and conservative moral values. Lee Atwater—who advised Reagan and George H. W. Bush on several presidential campaigns, and mentored Karl Rove—understood how to code racial politics to win the votes of suburban white Americans. In a 1981 interview, Atwater explained a key ingredient of the GOP’s so-called Southern Strategy:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger.” That hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract. Now you’re talking about cutting taxes. All these things you’re talking about are totally economic things. Saying “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing. And a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
In this day and age, these racist battle cries don’t fly. Voters are wary of naked or mean-spirited appeals to race.
Instead of explicit racial politics, we see something more subtle, but no less disturbing: the Marshmallow Center. Across America, especially in its suburbs and exurbs, there is a political moderation that dreads frank racial discussion in favor of the more socially acceptable Marshmallow Center — it’s not just white, it’s squishy.
“Obama’s dodge around race was exquisitely choreographed,” during his campaign, explains Laura Washington, half gushing, half complaining. Minorities, the black blogger quips, are Obama’s “shadow base.”
Try as they might, the Democrats cannot conceal their ambivalence about issues associated with racial minorities. The centrist Democrat verdict echoes with clarity: Deep-six the dubious distinction of being the party linked to racial minority interests to “win back” and “keep” white voters. Indeed, firm solidarity with racial minority groups, and liberal stances on race-related issues, are radioactive to Obama and Democrats nationwide.
So far, Obama is expert at skirting race-related issues — a tepid nod to affirmative action here, a dodge on immigration reform, there. David Axelrod, Senior Advisor to the President and his chief 2008 strategist, is a “cross-over specialist,” a political hand particularly experienced at helping black candidates appeal to white voters.
A former seminarian, pro-life Catholic, and creature of suburban Maryland, Steele is perceived to “broaden” the GOP base – ideologically, not racially. “When people speak of broadening the party’s geographic diversity, they are speaking in code. They mean that the party needs to welcome more moderates,” according to political observer Marc Ambinder. Steele’s chairmanship “marks a step away from the balkanized Southern white ethos of the party.”
Previously, in 2005, the GOP launched a stealth big-tent campaign ostensibly to woo black voters, “If You Give Us a Chance, We’ll Give You a Choice.” In reality, these efforts would also smooth the party’s rough, conservative edge. The GOP doesn’t woo minorities just for their own sake, but also to reel in the larger, more desired prize: the national mass of moderate white voters. It’s like flattering the pizza-face girl leaning on the bar to get to her knockout friend.
The GOP’s overwhelmingly white assemblage of party bosses elected Steele (immediately after Obama’s inauguration) more for the sake of white conservative-moderates than for minority Republicans and independents. As one wag puts it, Steele provides the Republican Party “default race card insurance,” political cover for when Republicans attack the President and need to deflect charges of racism.
Out of idealism and self-interest, marshmallow centrists promote a political outlook that amounts to benign neglect. As an unhealthy consequence, the Marshmallow Center calcifies a don’t-rock-the-boat racial comfort level that inherently favors the interests of financially stable, moderate white voters.
Recent political events dash the hope that Obama’s election has ushered in a post-racial nirvana. Both political parties understand that race is as relevant as ever. And in this curdling, partisan environment, both parties also recognize that the race card is never an ace.
Rich Benjamin is the author of Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America, and senior fellow at Demos, a New York-based think tank.
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