John McCain is in a tough position. Some of his supporters may be supporting him for reasons that are totally out of character with the candidate himself. McCain, a man who loves the United States and has often appealed to what he sees as the best in American ideals, is in the unenviable position of evoking some of the ugliness of U.S. racist culture.
Despite my disagreement with McCain on many issues, I have generally trusted he was a decent man, until the last couple weeks when ads and rallies revealed a xenophobic and racist undertone. As his attacks on Obama’s character took on a malicious and misleading tone, I lost respect for McCain. For her part, Sarah Palin has tried to link Obama to the violent activities of Bill Ayers, the University of Chicago professor who 40 years ago was in the radical group, Weather Underground. Yes, Obama and Ayers served together on civic committees seeking to improve education in Chicago, but come on, Obama was eight years old when Ayers was in his radical phase! Various speakers at McCain-Palin rallies have highlighted Obama’s middle name, which happens to be Hussein, as if that proves he is really a Muslim. This feeds the post 9/11 hatred of all Muslims because of the acts of a few. Fear that Obama might actually become president has stoked the racial prejudice that bubbles just beneath the surface in many of his white supporters’ spirits. They now have tacked on the title “Arab” to “elitist” and “out of touch with the working class” as another euphemism for his race.
On Friday, I gained back some of my respect for McCain when he chided his supporters who tried to link Obama to terrorism and accused him of being a secret Arab Muslim. McCain responded that Obama was a “decent person…that you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States.” His supporters boo-ed him when he said that!
Let me be clear: I don’t believe all of McCain’s supporters are racist, nor do I believe that McCain shares the fear, anger, distrust and outright prejudice of this segment of his supporters. However, McCain’s problem is that he needs those people’s votes if he is going to become president. My question is: will he seek the presidency at the cost of interracial understanding and dialogue? If this election has shown us anything it is that (1) young people don’t generally carry as significant racial hang-ups as earlier generations, but that (2) their parents and grandparents, especially in predominantly white areas, can not get past some deeply held racial anxieties and fears.
Now I am sensitive to the fact that there are many McCain supporters who do not share the characteristics of those who booed McCain on Friday, and I recognize that there are significant enough differences on issues that one could legitimately prefer McCain to Obama. However, the manner in which John McCain handles that segment of his supporters who harbor a primal fear that a black man might become president will not only have a significant impact on the election, but also on what happens beyond November 4 in terms interracial understanding, justice, and reconciliation.
When pushed and stressed to the brink, a person will often show his/her true character. McCain is on such a brink. The next three weeks leading up to Election Day will be a significant test of character for John McCain, as he contends with the deeply held prejudices of some who fear Obama more than they support him. No matter how the election turns out, John McCain must deal with the fact that his campaign has both aroused and benefitted from an historic legacy of racial fear and hatred.