My father’s mother was born in New York City in 1900 and passed away in Roanoke, Virginia in 1975. She grew up among poor immigrants in New York who barely made ends meet. She told me that they devised a way to save face when friends stopped by to say hello. Traditionally, they would have invited the visitors to stay for a meal, but they could not afford it if the people said yes. So they would issue this self-canceling offer: “If you have a sense of humor, I would like you to stay for dinner.”
Something of this sort occurred in West Virginia the other night, where they held a Democrat primary for President if you have a sense of humor.
The winner of the Dem nomination has been a foregone conclusion for some time now but there are two classes of people who have failed to notice. One is people whose last name is Clinton. The other is people who would vote for any white person before any black person. The fact that such voters still exist is not something that sends tremors of pride up the American spine. Apparently West Virginia is home to significant numbers of the latter class and they came out to tell the world — including exit pollsters — that their ballot counts just the same. Well, congratulations, pal, for exercising your citizenship.
The most shocking part of the story is that Madame Clinton pulled up in that state expressly to pander to that audience. Within hours of arriving there last week, she was explaining to an interviewer that she was most adept at gaining the votes of white people. Apparently, she is proud of being the Senator in the state of alabaster.
Forgetting even the issue of racism per se with all its attendant ugliness, there is something uniquely horrific in seeing this attitude operating in the political context. To consider the notion of a candidacy transacted on the basis — even the winking basis — of “Vote for me, I ain’t no n*****” is to look into the heart of real darkness. This sort of pale ontology was supposed to be a thing of the past. Although for the Clintons, nothing is too old or too dirty or too nasty or too divisive if it gets you a vote.
It seems to me that if there really are such individuals still out there, they are best not discussed. There are certain corners that we need not peer into, for our own health and safety; also, to avoid giving their slithery occupants undeserved exposure. Racism should be fought vigorously when it is an active force, seeking immediate ends, but when it skulks in the backwoods it is best left to dwindle in its own shadow.
When the election moves into its real phase, the duel between John McCain and Barack Obama, it is our fondest hope that it will be colorblind. This works both ways: it pulls off the table any racially coded slurs without substance, but it also demands that substantive points be advanced vigorously. The whole point of the country maturing to the point that minorities can compete for the big prize is to show just how minor that designation is in our eyes.
Senator Obama is a leftist, with some very weak ideas about confronting national enemies, and as such he should be opposed by the forces of realism. But a part of his idealism should be embraced, the part that asks us to view him through a glass lightly. In this respect, he should be seen as a candidate representing both parties. Republicans in their right minds should be making the message clear: “That is the guy I would be voting for if I thought his ideas were on target.”
This was not Hillary Clinton’s finest hour, nor West Virginia’s. The persistent sense, fanned by interviewees and poll responders, that the plebiscite there was a referendum on the compatibility of pigment with government, was an embarrassment to that state’s many fine denizens. John Denver’s sunny country roads were never meant to exclude. I pray that we are never again forced to use our senses of humor to grit our teeth through another such event.
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