Why You Can’t Tell the Truth About Race

Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu is getting pilloried for saying some people in her home state are racist. This is absurd, and an insight to how the GOP is likely to win big on Tuesday.

So here’s the climate we’re operating in, in three little Senate campaign vignettes.

Mitch McConnell sends out a mailer to eastern Kentucky voters that is obviously a voter-suppression device, designed to confuse voters into thinking that they’ll be breaking the law if they cast ballots. He has been criticized, and Alison Lundergan Grimes’s campaign is suing, but in all likelihood it’s going to work, and he’s not only going to get away with it but this candidate who is actively trying to depress the vote in a part of his state will be the new majority leader of the Senate next January.

Meanwhile, Iowans are about to send a serious extremist to the Senate. Joni Ernst’s positions have been well-catalogued, but somehow neither the cataloguing nor her blowing off the editorial board of the Des Moines Register is going to hurt her, and she is about to join the same federal government that she has declared is not safe from her “beautiful little Smith & Wesson.”

But down in Louisiana, what happens when Mary Landrieu gently suggests that maybe race has a little something to do with Barack Obama’s unpopularity in Louisiana? “The South has not always been the friendliest place for African-Americans,” Landrieu remarked to NBC News last Thursday. “It’s been a difficult time for the president to present himself in a very positive light as a leader.” She’s getting hammered for it. It’s still a decent bet that her contest against Bill Cassidy will go to a run-off, but he’s ahead of her a few points in most polls, which means that’ll be a really hard run-off for her to win.

So you can blatantly try to suppress the vote. You can hide your extreme views and duck from having to answer questions about them. You can do all kinds of things that some of these candidates have done. Remember Ben Sasse, who is going to be the new senator from Nebraska? He said that religious freedom trumps government to such an extent that the gummint “cannot force citizens to violate their religious beliefs under any circumstances.” We’ve forgotten all about this guy, because it’s Nebraska, and the race isn’t anywhere near close, but you might want to start remembering his name. He’s going to be among the most radical of the new crop of senators. When I asked a tea-party insider recently which Senate races were most important to his movement, he named Sasse first.

So there are a lot of things candidates can get away with saying and doing this election cycle. But there’s one thing you can’t do: mildly say anything that resembles the truth about race in America.

I’m not saying, and Landrieu wasn’t saying, that race explains all antipathy toward Obama in Louisiana. She invoked his opposition to drilling. But can anyone argue with a straight face that racism is not a factor at all in how some white voters feel about Obama in some states? No person who truly believed such a thing would be worth taking seriously. And look at how mild her phrasing was: The South “has not always been the friendliest place” for black people.

If someone said Eastern Europe had not always been the friendliest place for Jews, no one would bat an eye, and in fact the person would -- if anything -- be criticized for dealing in mealy-mouthed euphemism. And yet, when it comes to our own South, we have to pretend somehow that racism plays no role whatsoever in white Louisianans’ assessment of the president.

Gee, let’s see. Why did Louisiana give Obama his second-lowest level of white-voter support in 2012, at 10.5 percent, just behind (you guessed it) Mississippi? It just so happens that of the 10 states where Obama had his lowest levels of white support, eight are in the old Confederacy (the other two are Wyoming and Utah). And no, again, I wouldn’t say it’s all racism. But it’s far more absurd to say that racism plays no role. And after the 2016 election, come to think of it, we’ll have a crude way to measure it, once we can compare Obama’s white totals in these states to Hillary Clinton’s.

It all adds up to a pretty great situation—for the racists. They get to be racist, and then when a politician very gingerly suggests that racism exists, they get to take roaring umbrage. And by and large, they get the mainstream media to take their side! Because Landrieu’s remarks, you see, are “divisive” (so said Bobby Jindal among others). Note that. It’s not the reality of the racism that’s divisive. It’s softly pointing out that it exists that gets called divisive.

We haven’t discussed it much this election, but obviously Obama’s race is a factor in these Senate elections. How big a factor? We can’t know, and it varies from state to state—probably much more of a factor in Landrieu’s Louisiana than in Colorado or Iowa, say. You can bet it’s helping McConnell; he probably knows by how much to the tenth of a percentage point.

Something else that doesn’t get discussed a lot is the fact that many matters of public concern are deeply and permanently racialized in this country. Laced into the hatred of Obamacare is to some extent an assumption that it’s basically for black people (the uninsured and the poor are presumed to be disproportionately black). Approval numbers on Obamacare by race are harder to come by than you’d think, but about a year ago just 29 percent of whites approved of it. That’s even less than the percentage of whites (39) who voted for Obama in 2012.

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Race is also embedded in the whole set of presumptions about the 47 percent and the “moocher class.” This is an emotional posture that, again, hasn’t gotten a lot of attention this election cycle, because no bartender caught a Republican candidate on tape complaining about the moochers, but the belief is deeply held by Republican voters (and some independents), and it’s very racially coded.

So just as it is often said that the whole black race is on trial when a high-profile black defendant faces prosecution, we can say that once again the black race is on the ballot, for the fourth and (for the foreseeable future) final time. And it’s going to finish a two-two draw. Somehow, the white race, and especially the racists within it, are never on the ballot. It literally took a member of the Ku Klux Klan almost becoming governor (David Duke) for racism to become an openly acknowledged issue. That, of course, happened in Louisiana. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence.

And as for Landrieu, as I said, it seems to look still as if her contest is headed to a run-off. Cassidy has hit 50 in a couple of recent polls, though he averages 48, 49. If he vaults over the big five-oh tomorrow, I think we’ll know why.