Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Racism-Tinged Debate Over Colin Powell's Endorsement of Obama

Drudge kicked off the "race-based endorsement" meme this morning with the bold headline "Powell for Obama: It's Not About Race." Drudge is obviously asking, "Was it about race?" And according to a story posted on Politico today, Rush Limbaugh has directly dismissed Colin Powell's endorsement of Obama as being influenced by race.

"Secretary Powell says his endorsement is not about race," Limbaugh wrote in an e-mail. "OK, fine. I am now researching his past endorsements to see if I can find all the inexperienced, very liberal, white candidates he has endorsed. I'll let you know what I come up with."

I want to carefully state that this quote is drawn from an internet story referencing an email I haven't seen. It is therefore possible that these are not Rush's actual words. The following argument therefore addresses the stupidity and toxicity of these words, and not any particular person.

1) These words suggest a race-based litmus test for endorsements. The words "inexperienced, liberal" are just a smoke-screen; Powell explained his rationale for supporting Obama, including his concern that the Supreme Court could become too conservative. Limbaugh is not responding to Powell's stated reasons, but instead is suggesting that if one African-American endorses another, something fishy is going on.

2) And what's wrong with race playing a role, anyway? If Powell had said, "You know, one of the many factors in my decision is that I think having an African-American President would demonstrate that the US government truly represents everybody," would there be something wrong with that? Is Rush suggesting that African-Americans should feel guilty about voting for Obama? Should whites (or Scottish-Americans) feel guilty about endorsing or voting for McCain?

3) What about the other endorsements that Obama has received from Republicans, conservatives, and white Americans in general? Is Rush suggesting that race played a role in their decisions? Was the Washington Post editorial staff driven by racial considerations in their endorsement of Obama? If not, why is Powell being held to a racial standard that isn't applied to white people who "cross the aisle" to endorse Obama?

The bottom line is that if Rush had left race out of it and said he was surprised that Powell was endorsing an "inexperienced, very liberal" candidate, then we would be having a political discussion. But by injecting race into his statement, Rush is discrediting Powell's endorsement on racial grounds.

Powell can argue that Obama's experience, advisors, and temperament qualify him for the Presidency. Powell can argue that Obama's political leanings and policies are an ideal match for America's current needs. But Powell can never change the fact that he and Obama both have African ancestry. And that is perhaps the most insidious aspect of these words attributed to Rush Limbaugh: because Colin Powell is African-American, Rush would deny him the respect his endorsement deserves. And there's nothing Powell, Obama, or anybody else can do to change that.