Melissa Harris-Perry will be a featured speaker at the Take Back the American Dream conference, convening June 18 to 20 in Washington, DC, as part of the plenary session, “2012 and Beyond: Victory Necessary, Not Sufficient.” The following is an excerpt of an article originally published by The Nation. Click here for the full article.
Conservative strategists have been toying with how to use race against President Obama in this year’s election. Since Obama’s May 9 announcement supporting same-sex marriage, some Republicans have been salivating about the delicious possibility of dampening black voters’ enthusiasm for the president by casting him as out of touch with their religious sentiments. Then the leaked Joe Ricketts plan, “The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama,” revealed GOP strategists’ idea of employing “an extremely literate conservative African-American” to discredit Obama among white voters by reminding them of his link with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Thus, the black church would be both a wedge to weaken black support and a tool to discourage white supporters.
I’m a little surprised to find conservatives offering such clumsy and stale campaign game plans. They seem intent on repeating the strategic mistake made by Illinois Republicans nearly a decade ago—a mistake largely responsible for making possible the swift ascendance of Barack Obama from state senator to president.
Obama was initially matched against Jack Ryan, a young, charismatic white candidate who had some important ties to Chicago’s black community; Ryan had voluntarily left a high-paying job in the private sector to become a schoolteacher in an all-black, all-male South Side high school. But his campaign was quickly derailed by damaging revelations from his 1999 divorce. When he withdrew, Illinois Republicans scrambled to find a replacement. In August they announced the surprising decision to import Maryland native and conservative black talk-show host Alan Keyes as their candidate.
In retrospect, the GOP’s choice may border on ridiculous, but at the time, Republicans were calculating that by tapping into the “morality vote,” Keyes could prove a troubling opponent for Obama, especially among black voters. After all, Keyes employs a rhetorical style far more consistent with black church traditions. Like most blacks in Illinois, Keyes is the descendant of African slaves, while Obama is the child of a white woman and an African foreign student. Keyes, like most blacks in Illinois, was raised within a traditional conservative religious tradition, while Obama became a churchgoer only after marrying his relatively more religious wife. While Obama often actively deracialized his political positions, pitching his policies as good for the state in general, Keyes actively discussed his views in the context of race. He publicly advocated reparations for American slavery and even explained his antiabortion stance as motivated by the idea that abortion is racial genocide (“so, the people who are supporting that position [pro-choice] are actually supporting the systematic extermination of black America”).
In many ways, it was Keyes who had access to important black racial tropes and political/cultural practices. But come November 2004, it was Obama who was embraced as the candidate of choice among black voters in Illinois, winning 92 percent of them. In 2008, of course, Obama went on to capture 95 percent of the black vote nationally and also garnered a larger percentage of the white vote than either Gore or Kerry had.
All of this suggests that racebaiting and race-divisive tactics won’t be successful in 2012.