This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: August 1, 2008- I was struck by recent commentary asserting that Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, made a huge mistake in accusing Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, of using his "risky traits" to instill fear.
I think we could all pretty much agree that there are numerous ways to disrupt or halt conversation. For some, it might be bringing up religion or politics in casual conversation. When talking about race, one sure-fire way to shut someone down is to accuse him of being racist. End of conversation. You win. They lose.
We all know it is more complicated, but that's the long and short of it. We rarely stop to analyze the situation. Instead, we simply pick sides and talk past each other. It's kind of like throwing a grenade and trusting it will do major damage -- no need to worry about the details. It's a really dirty way to fight, especially when the accusations are false and are used to smear another's reputation.
When that is the case, we're being passive-aggressive. We're trying to appear as if we're not being confrontational, yet we are being just that. It's subtle, but there is no mistaking it. Well, sometimes there is.
I believe McCain was being passive aggressive while hurling the assertion that Obama is "playing the race card." He did it in two ways. First, he never came out and said it directly. He agreed with a reporter's assertion that Obama was playing the race card, called it "unfortunate," and then refused to comment further. So, we can't really claim that he said it, right? His approach was to throw out the grenade and see how much damage it would do. By refusing to engage, he didn't give us any direction, any understanding of how he came to the opinion, or what evidence he gleaned and weighed.
Second, what little detail there was about McCain's position came from others who were extremely vague. Members of his campaign called Obama's comments divisive, shameful, wrong and from the bottom of the deck. Oh, now I understand.
Without McCain's explaining himself, his accusation that Obama is playing the race card is no more defensible than someone calling another person racist and upon being asked why saying "because." These are loaded accusations. By not discussing the nuances, in my opinion, McCain is playing the race card just as much as he accuses Obama of doing so. By not delving further, we don't know what he thinks. If people agree with him, they can simply insert their own reasons. We are left unable to analyze, and maybe even accept, his argument. He's killed the conversation before it's even started. He's hoping we declare him the winner (in this round and the ones to follow).
Obama simply stated observations: His name is not mainstream; he is very different from the presidents on our currency, namely with relation to race. Rather than acknowledge Obama was stating the obvious, McCain interpreted Obama's remarks as "playing the race card." At least that is what I surmise -- since he refuses to engage in conversation.
Personally, I don't think it's clear who has won this round, but I do know that we have a new way to, without explanation, bring conversations to a halt. Add "you're playing the race card" to the list of conversation killers 101.
Kira Hudson Banks, PhD., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Ill. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon.