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John McCain apologized last week for failing to oppose the display of the
Confederate flag at the State Capitol in the midst of the South Carolina
Republican primary. Some people have praised McCain for an act of courage
and conscience. I’m not one of them.
McCain’s apology was one more indicator that the time to engage in
racially slanted remarks is when you’re looking for votes. The time to make
apologies for pandering to racists is when you’re not. His apology,
frankly, is disingenuous. He’s simply a man for all seasons. And in this
particular season, he’s not looking for votes.
In certain respects, McCain’s political ploy is both good news and bad
news. It’s good news, in the sense that it tells us that race relations
have improved to the point that they can be treated as part of a political
game. The bad news is that politicians are all too willing to play that game.
The New York Times was quick to praise McCain, while taking the opportunity
to recount the Republican Party’s ignoble record of playing the race card
since 1964 when Senator Barry Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act
in an effort to court southern white Democrats alienated by the party’s
outreach to newly enfranchised Black Americans. There is no question that
the Republicans have a poor record in this regard — from the Goldwater
vote right up through George W. Bush’s appearance at Bob Jones University.
But the Times high-handedness notwithstanding, the Democratic Party does
its fair share of race-baiting, too.
The Democrats pander to Black voters during their primary season and then
spend the general election engaged in calculated acts to prove how they no
longer pander to Black voters. That’s also the season that Black leaders
(almost all Democrats) threaten to go independent because the Democrats are
betraying their commitment to African Americans. Of course, the Black
Democratic leadership never goes independent. They just play the race card
to leverage their own political positions.
Politicians of both parties — from Goldwater to Ronald Reagan — from
George Wallace and Bill Clinton — have all contributed to the recasting of
what has been a major social issue in America for 400 years — racism —
into a manipulative campaign ploy. I have no reason to believe that John
McCain’s apology is a break with that tradition.
I do know this. Racial strife in our country will not be eliminated by
either of the two parties. They each gain too much from its continued
existence. We’re going to need new parties and a new political
consciousness in which leaders lead, rather than say what they feel they
need to say to get votes and in which the voters can hold our leaders
accountable for what they say and do.