Jeff Jacoby is a conservative columnist for the Boston Globe, so I disagree with his conclusions quite frequently. But, over the years I’ve also disagreed with his reasoning almost as frequently. He seems to me to be one of those columnists who comes up with a provocative conclusion and then tries to figure out how he can support it…and doesn’t always succeed.
This morning he complains about people accusing their political opponents of “playing the race card.” That’s the new McCarthyism, he says. He points to the GOP ad that “pokes fun” at Harold Ford, a black candidate for Senate in Tennessee:
And a bare-shouldered bimbo squeals, “I met Harold at the Playboy party” — a reference to Playboy’s 2005 Super Bowl bash in Florida, which Ford attended. The ditzy blonde returns at the end to whisper, with a wink, “Harold: call me!”
It was a witty, entertaining ad — and it promptly had liberals and Democrats and even the odd Republican screeching about how “racist” it was.
Ford went to a Superbowl party sponsored by Playboy, which clearly means he’s on the prowl for white “bimbos.” Nothing offensive about that! And talk about witty! [Note to the sarcasm impaired: That was sarcasm.]
Jacoby then lays the smack down (or whatever that slang phrase is that the kids are using):
But the plain fact is, there is nothing remotely racial about the Tennessee ad. And I can prove it: The ad would be just as effective if Ford were white.
Jacoby furthers his case:
The same litmus test exonerates Kerry Healey’s much-maligned TV commercials against [the black Democratic candidate] Deval Patrick in the Massachusetts governor’s fight. In one ad, a woman of indeterminate race is shown walking to her car in a parking garage, while a voiceover reminds viewers that Patrick has “praised a convicted rapist.”
Jacoby’s point is that the “ad would be precisely as effective if he [Patrick] were white.”
And on what basis does Jacoby claim this? Has he done a study to test the ad’s effect if the candidate were white or black? No. The best I can figure is that Jacoby means that the explicit argument made by the ad would apply equally to a black or white candidate. But, as he acknowledges, the “McCarthyites” who claim that this is a covertly racist ad point to implications and code words that only make sense within the context within which the ad is actually heard. In this case, everyone who sees the ad knows that Patrick is black, and many — thanks to Healey’s manipulative and cynical raising of the issue — know that the rapist in question is black. In a world truly free of racism, there would be no residue of former cultural associations between rapists and black men. But this is not that world.
So, let’s apply Jacoby’s “proof” to a hypothetical ad attacking Deval Patrick. In this ad, a gang of male, black youths are following a pretty young white woman through the darkened streets. “They’re over-sexed, and they want our women,” says the voice over. Then the ad shows a photo of Deval Patrick. “He’d be fine shining your shoes, but do you really trust him as governor?” According to Jacoby, this ad would be equally effective if Patrick were white because we’re all against crime, and you don’t have to be black to be a good shiner of shoes. But you have to have a brick ear not to recognize that my hypothetical ad is wildly racist. Jacoby’s test fails the real-world test in which ads have meanings beyond the literal words intoned. In context — that is, in the real world — the anti-Ford and anti-Patrick ads are racist, and I believe deliberately so.
Jacoby simply misses the point, not because he’s racist but because (I believe) he’s too intent on being controversial. Conclusions should come last, not first.
Or maybe just as Bush’s speechwriters talk about the “soft racism of low expectations” (a great phrase, despite how it’s used), we should talk about the “soft racism of ignoring racism.”
The Globe today warmly endorsed Deval Patrick for governor, pointing to his ability to listen to those who disagree and his refusal to polarize the electorate for his own personal gain. I’m an enthusiastic supporter — I’ve worked the phone banks for him — and hope that his resounding victory will help rip the Willy Horton page out of the Republican playbook.
I emailed Jeff Jacoby to tell him I blogged this. He wrote back and gave me permission to run his reply here:
Of course your ad would be wildly racist. But what does your hypothetical
ad have to do with the real ones I wrote about? Healey’s ads, unchanged in any way, would be equally effective against Deval Patrick if he were a white liberal. The Tennessee ad, unchanged, would be equally effective if Harold Ford were white. That tells me that the ads are not racist — or even racial. I appreciate your taking the time to comment on my column, but you seem to have completely missed the point I was making.
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