Racism and Harold Ford

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For almost a day now, I've been stewing over Harold Ford. I wasn't particularly rooting for him, given that I agree with only about 30% of anything I've ever heard him say. I also question the house logic that a Ford victory would have represented some sort of great achievement for African Americans. Even if he won, the sun would still come up; we'd still have to deal with dumb bosses, intractable kids and spouses who talk past us. So I was apathetic about a Ford victory. But it's hard to take him losing like this. I'm skeptical of anyone who pins their misfortune exclusively on the color of their skin. But in Harold Ford's case, the awful truth is simple: if he were white, he would have won.

When I first saw the infamous "Harold, call me" ad, I perhaps gave too much credit to the electorate. Ford had opened a small lead at the time, and I dismissed the pundits who argued that the polls were overestimating the willingness of white voters to endorse a black candidate. The ad's obvious appeal to racist stereotypes won't make a dent, I thought.

Ford's loss doesn't mean that we're back in 1956. But to lose over the ancient fear of miscegenation is ridiculous. Almost as ridiculous as the G.O.P.'s attempts to woo blacks across the country. This was the year when President Bush addressed the NAACP, Ken Mehlman made very big appeals to African Americans, and Republicans fielded a dazzling array of black candidates. But all of them, with the exception of Michael Steele, lost by large margins. Steele came close to beating his Democratic opponent in the Maryland Senate race, Ben Cardin, but black voters still went for Cardin by a three-to-one margin, according to the Washington Post. It's not that African Americans necessarily reject a Republican agenda, but that they suspect Republicans have no qualms about appealing to the lower instincts of bigots. And the Ford race proved them right.

Ford wasn't above appealing to lower instincts himself. His campaign had no problem deploying the vague rhetoric of family, in hopes of demonstrating that a Democrat could be staunch in discriminating against gays. Ultimately Ford's hope was to build a rainbow coalition, one that would unite rednecks and the ghetto in mutual homophobia. If I lived in Tennessee, I couldn't have voted for either Ford or his opponent, Bob Corker. That doesn't make the style of Ford's defeat any less disappointing. But at least it makes it poetic.