I don't know why anyone—myself included—ever let themselves think that a black man could run for president of the United States without igniting the sort of racial backlash we're witnessing in the current campaign.
I don't know why anyone—myself included—ever believed that the Republican Party would forego its time-tested, coded appeals to prejudice and character assassination like the ones we're seeing now.
John McCain and his minions are banking on the idea that this is still the America I grew up in, where politicians will say and do whatever it takes to win an election, even if it means throwing away their integrity and decency, even if it means lying and appealing to the most bigoted common denominator.
We've seen all this before, in every Republican campaign since 1964, and we're seeing it again, and none of that should surprise us. The surprise would be if the better angels of our nature prevail and the cynical strategy is rejected. That would be a shock, all right, and, yet, it could still happen. In fact, I think it will.
That's because white America, like the rest of America, is changing.
McCain, commander of what used to be known as the Straight Talk Express, has sunk so low into racially-tinged politics that even right-wing Republicans are cringing. Even that old rascal Karl Rove, George W. Bush's master of underhandedness conceded this weekend that "McCain has gone in his ads one step too far, and sort of attributing to Obama things that are, you know, beyond the 100-percent-truth test." Sure, Republicans want to win the election, but they don't want to win it this way.
To them, it's one thing to smear Barack Obama as an out-of-touch, arugula-eating, tax-raising celebrity. It's something else, and unacceptable even to many Republicans, to falsely suggest in a TV spot that a loving father and family man such as Obama supports teaching kindergarten-age children about sexual intercourse. Or, even worse, to insinuate that Obama, who was raised by a white mother and her white parents, is an uppity black who insulted a white woman by calling Sarah Palin a pig. Even his allusions to Obama's supposed elitism seem to imply that the Illinois senator is a Negro who does not know his place.
This strategy is going to backfire because McCain is underestimating white people.
The truth is that bigotry has gone out of style, even among conservative Republicans. Most white people are deeply ashamed of the prejudices that they still harbor and go to great lengths to deny them. In the past, Republican strategists found ways to appeal to these feelings by using racially coded words and symbols, giving some white voters an excuse to vote their prejudices without explicitly acknowledging that race played a role in their vote. And it worked, over and over again.
Call me naïve, but I think those days are finally gone. The difference in the current campaign is that the target of McCain's racial appeal is not a symbolic figure like Willie Horton or the welfare queens Ronald Reagan railed about, but it's about the very real black man at the top of the Democratic ticket. That means that the attacks, because they are so personal and aimed at a specific black individual, are even more offensive than previous assaults.
Like it or not, every attack McCain makes on some supposed defect in Obama's character inevitably carries a racial connotation. His attack ads amount to an updated and sanitized rerun of the "nigger-nigger-nigger" style of politicking perfected by Jim Crow politicians like Theodore Bilbo during the heyday of segregation. They get the same message across without using the racist language. There may be legitimate reasons to vote for McCain, and he could have chosen to stick to the issues. But, in these ads at least, McCain has chosen to make it all about race.
And that's why it won't work. The very baldness of McCain's appeal makes it impossible for the white voters at whom it is aimed to pretend that his strategy is anything other than a racist appeal to their nastiest instincts. It asks them to act like unthinking members of a hateful mob instead of thinking citizens. It forces them to come face to face with themselves and consider whether they will vote on the basis of an appeal to hatred and fear or something more rational.
My guess is that, in the end, many whites will be disgusted and insulted by the Republicans' race-baiting tactics. Some, of course, will fall for the bait and convince themselves of the righteousness of their decision. But enough may think more of themselves. They may come to see that McCain has allowed himself to sink to the level of a George Wallace, implicitly vowing to stand in the White House door just as the segregationist Alabama governor stood in the door of a school house.
These white voters may ask themselves if Obama's reality matches the ugly stereotype McCain's campaign is constructing. The Democrat can help them by refraining from wallowing in the sewer with the Republican slime-masters and focusing what is really at stake in this election. He can find ways to remind white voters that they're better, more open-minded and responsible citizens than the easily-manipulated dupes the Republicans seem to think they are. He can demonstrate that he is prepared to lead a serious effort to come to grips with the enormous challenges that the next president will inherit.
If he succeeds, whites will reject McCain's tactics in sufficient numbers for Obama to win the election. If he fails, McCain will triumph, and we'll all be in very deep trouble. But at least we'll know where we stand.
Jack White is a regular contributor to The Root.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.