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The Great White Hope

Here’s how the protagonist was described:

He developed a more patient approach than was customary…playing defensively, waiting for a mistake, and then capitalizing on it…[He] always began…cautiously…[and] gave the impression of having much more to offer and, if pushed, he could punch quite powerfully. [His] style was very effective, but it was criticized in the…press as being cowardly and devious.

No, this wasn’t a review of Barack Obama’s performance in the first presidential debate. It is from the Wikipedia entry on American boxer Jack Johnson. From 1908 to 1915, he was the first African American heavyweight champion of the world.

Nobody in the mainstream press calls Obama cowardly or devious, exactly. But many pundits and analysts seem always to believe Obama under-performs and misses opportunities. Back in the early 20th Century, overtly racist white Americans expected Jack Johnson to perform like a subhuman brute in the ring. By showing finesse and intelligence, Johnson was getting above his raisin’. Well, actually, the bigots believed he was getting above his species.

The parallels between the boxer Jack Johnson and Barack Obama and "Great White Hope" boxer James Jeffries and John McCain may seem anachronistic. America’s racial attitudes are a good deal better than they were in 1910. At the Johnson-Jeffries fight in Reno that year, the ringside band played, "All coons look alike to me," and the crowd was urged to chant, "Kill the n—–.

Still, there remains among some number of Americans an ignorant and ugly prejudice toward people of color. Duh. We use euphemisms for these bigots – the very unfair "white, male, blue-collar worker," for instance. I say unfair because only some of this demographic are bigots, and by nervously avoiding talk of racism and short-handing the demographic description, we are accusing millions of Americans of prejudice they don’t have. We are also hiding the real bigots as effectively as if we’d bought them white sheets.

No, it’s not 1910, and at the debate in Oxford, Mississippi, Friday night, the KKK didn’t chant. It did hand out pamphlets.

But when a journalist like Politico’s Roger Simon can watch the first debate and then write, "The Mac is Back," something besides simple debate analysis is going on. I don’t know Simon, but I know he has an outstanding reputation among his peers, probably due as much to his affable, Wally Cox-like demeanor as to his reporting skills. I’ve singled him out because his analysis is baffling, but also just because the media elite seem to like him so much, and I want them to think deeply about why they are writing what they’re writing. I’m certain Simon’s no throwback racist, and I make no such accusation. He probably just wants McCain to win.

I am, however, saying this: Over the last 10 days Obama has begun to pull away from McCain in the polls. The margin is significant. Also, the snap polls after the debate showed the public giving the Democratic nominee a significant win. Had this situation been reversed, had McCain been pulling ahead in the polls substantially and won a clear victory in the debate, Simon and his colleagues would be writing Obama’s obituary. They would not be writing, "Barack is Back." No one can honestly doubt that.

And I believe that this has something to do with Americans’ racial attitudes. A different standard is applied to Obama, as it was to Jack Johnson. He’s achieved something no one thought a black American would achieve in this era. That’s a sobering enough thought, but it’s true. His victory in the Democratic primary surprised all the pundits. And they’re still surprised. And most of them believe that the racist vote in America will probably be sufficient to defeat him. They just don’t say it so bluntly.

We’re not talking openly about racism, because 1) We don’t like to think about it; 2) there is a hopeful and inspiring generational change happening with regard to race in America, and we have our fingers crossed that it’ll just get the job done without us having to talk about it any more (like we hope our kids learn about sex without us having to teach them, except our kids actually do learn about sex); 3) Obama truly is a post-racial personality, and it’s not in the (morally justifiable, I think) pragmatic interests of his campaign to struggle with yesterday’s racial categories and terms; 4) conservatives are masters at racist code, and are quite happy with the more general public dread of racial talk.

When the right wing blames the financial crisis on people of color, the charge is, of course, a lie. But they don’t care. Tossing out a little dark-skinned culprit now and again keeps the bigots stirred. It’s the same with those barbarians who would use a term like "uppity" this year. The user will be criticized, but the word once let loose will do its nasty work. And everybody knows it.

I saw Howard Sackler’s film adaptation of his Broadway play, "The Great White Hope," in 1970. I was sixteen. It was one of the first movies I was able to drive myself to in my hometown of Houston, Texas. Schools there wouldn’t be desegrated until the next year, under a zoning plan mandated by the federal courts. We caused an actual chair-tossing riot of parents at my all-white high school when we radical students invited a well-respected black political leader, the late Mickey Leland, to come to an assembly and explain the desegregation plan.

In the film, James Earl Jones reprised his stage role as Johnson. I was deeply touched, and remain so. The play, the movie, and Johnson’s actual biography are much more complex than a simple morality tale. Still, what I remember most is the boxer’s courage and the ugly and maniacal bigotry of whites offended at the challenge to their assumed biological superiority.

I don’t want that kind of bigotry to remain hidden. I especially don’t want it hidden if it’s going to play a significant role in the outcome of the 2008 election. To some number of Americans, John McCain is running as a Great White Hope. His handlers have designed it that way. He knows it. The political press knows it.

Some in the press are not even confronting their own attitudes about race, which I honestly believe are not racist attitudes. Their attitudes may just be generational after-effects, little more than ambiguous expectations and the usual more-or-less liberal white person’s discomfort with all thoughts about race. (Sadly, most of the press I speak of are white.)

Not every critique of Obama or flattering piece about McCain is racially motivated, of course. That would be absurd to suggest. But it sure is harder to tell what is and what isn’t when the subject itself is banished from the discussion.

Oh, one more thing. Jack Johnson defeated Jeffries. He finally lost the boxing title a few years later, at age 37. He served a good boxing equivalent of two full terms.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith