The North Carolina Republican Party — forged by the hand of Dixiecrat segregationists like Jesse (“White people, wake up before it is too late. Do you want Negroes working beside you, your wife and your daughters, in your mills and factories?”) Helms — has never been cautious about playing the race card. When North Carolina Democrats nominated Harvey Gantt, an exceptionally-qualified moderate African-American candidate against Helms in a 1990 U.S. Senate race, the North Carolina Republican machine countered with a series of ads that emphasized Gantt’s race and played on fears and prejudices.
Of course, in the politically-correct world of special privileges demanded by contemporary conservatives, no one was supposed to use the word “racist” to describe the pro-Helms ads. And, so, much of the commercial broadcast, cable and print media has to this day allowed the Helms and his partisan allies off the hook for running a campaign that was conceived and implemented with the aggressively racist intent of scaring white voters away from voting for an African-American candidate who they agreed with on the issues and who they knew to be more capable of representing them in the Senate.
Because the media tends to be afraid of calling racists out, Helms and the North Carolina Republicans had no trouble running a blatantly racist campaign. And, when Helms was reelected over Gantt, a powerful lesson was learned.
The unfortunate truth is that, when a political organization plays the race card, gets away with it because journalists have been pressured to avoid using accurate language and then wins on election day, that organization can be expected to play the race card again.
And so the North Carolina Republican Party has.
Under the guise of opposing the a pair of Democratic gubernatorial candidates who have endorsed Barack Obama for the party’s presidential nomination, the state party is airing a commercial designed to do exactly what the Helms campaign’s anti-Gantt ad did back in 1990: scare white voters away from an African-American candidate they might otherwise support.
If the material in the current ad was accurate in its portrayal of Obama, the North Carolina Republicans might have a defense. But it’s not.
As images of Obama and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright flash on the television screen, the candidate’s former pastor is quoted out of context with the purpose of making him look like a dangerous radical – and Obama like either a dupe or a fellow-traveler on the anti-American fringe.
The transcript of the current commercial goes like this:
Narrator: For twenty years, Barack Obama sat in his pew listening to his pastor.
Jeremiah Wright: And then wants us to sing God Bless America. No, no, no. Not God Bless America, God (censored) America.
Narrator: Now Bev Perdue and Richard Moore endorse Barack Obama. They should know better. He’s just too extreme for North Carolina.
Chairman Linda Daves: The North Carolina Republican Party sponsored this ad opposing Bev Perdue and Richard Moore for North Carolina Governor.
Despite the efforts of the party chair to confuse the intent of the ad, this is another case where no serious observer will be confused by what the North Carolina Republican Party is doing. They’re playing the race card.
The question now is whether they will, again, get away with doing so.Obama and his supporters ought not play on the “politically-correct” – or, to be more precise, deliberately incorrect – commercial media to clarify things.
But they might want to point Americans to some genuine journalism. On Friday night, my friend Bill Moyers interviewed Wright at length for the PBS program “Bill Moyers Journal.” During the course of the interview, Moyers played an extended clip of the sermon that was sampled in the North Carolina Republican Party commercial. It becomes clear that Wright was speaking in a savvy, nuanced manner about complex questions of regarding U.S. foreign and domestic policy and, far from displaying extreme sentiments, the former Marine was discussing concerns that are common among Americans of every racial, ethnic, income and even ideological grouping.
At one point in the interview, Moyers asks Wright whether there has been a failure of communication between the pastor and his critics.
“When something is taken like a sound bite for a political purpose and put constantly over and over again, looped in the face of the public, that’s not a failure to communicate,” answers Wright. “Those who are doing that are communicating exactly what they wanna do, which is to paint me as some sort of fanatic or as the learned journalist from the New York Times called me, a ‘wackadoodle’… I think they wanted to communicate that I am unpatriotic, that I am un-American, that I am filled with hate speech, that I have a cult at Trinity United Church of Christ.”
This is precisely what the North Carolina Republican Party is doing. And their purpose is clear. They want, in Wright’s wise words, “To put an element of fear and hatred and to stir up the anxiety of Americans who still don’t know the African-American tradition…”
The hero of the North Carolina GOP, Jesse Helms, once said, “Democracy used to be a good thing, but now it has gotten into the wrong hands.”
In fact, democracy is still a good thing. It only looks bad when hand of racism touches it. And the way to challenge racism is to call the racists out. Barack Obama and his supporters must understand that what the North Carolina Republican Party is doing is just the beginning of a fear-mongering campaign that will only be halted if it is identified for what it is: a crude playing of the race-card for political purposes.