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[Music clip: From Haydn's Derbyshire Marches, organ version]
And Radio Derb is on the air! This is your convalescently genial host John Derbyshire with a special edition of the show. Instead of a news roundup, this week's broadcast consists of an interview with a most interesting author.
If you're a regular reader of National Review Online you may recall a column we ran a few weeks ago by Seth Forman, who is an Associate Professor at Stony Brook University out on Long Island. Seth's column was titled "Obama's America in Black & White," and it ran through some of the key points in a book that Seth's just published: American Obsession: Race and Conflict in the Age of Obama.
In that NRO column, and in much greater detail in his book, Seth Forman argues that as other forms of racial segregation have fallen away, voluntary political segregation has been left more visible than ever. Our political segregation has in fact become more intense than ever.
To quote from Seth's NRO column:
In the simplest terms, blacks tend to be more ambivalent toward the nation's founding documents, institutions, and values than whites, are more likely to prefer an activist government, and are more likely to look skeptically upon free-market competition, entrepreneurship, and individualism.
The election of Barack Obama, far from doing anything to heal this division has, Professor Forman argues, made it worse, precisely because Obama himself displays those ambivalent, skeptical, collectivist attitudes.
After reading Seth Forman's book, I tracked him down in his lair on Long Island and persuaded him to come in for an interview. I have him with me today in Radio Derb's state-of-the-art sound studio here on the 95th floor of Buckley Towers in the heart of Manhattan, and I'm going to ask him some questions about his book.
JD: Good morning, Seth.
SF: Good morning.
JD: Welcome to Radio Derb!
SF: Thanks for having me.
JD: First of all I have to ask you your reaction to the Herman Cain phenomenon. In particular, has it caused you to reconsider the arguments you make in your book about the possible re-racialization of the white vote — that is, white voters fleeing the Democratic Party because they associate it with all these angry, socialistic ideas out of black grievance culture?
SF: No. I think that it confirms the thesis: essentially that whites are more heavily — even than in the recent past — voting with Republicans and against Democrats.
Herman Cain … the first thing I have to say about his candidacy is that he has shown great ability at marketing. The 9-9-9 plan that he came up with was a systematic, organized idea to address some of the nation's most pressing problems, and I think that, probably above all, accounts for his surge in the polls most recently.
But I would say that there is a significant portion of Republican voters that are probably happy that he's a well-regarded black candidate, because they have been accused — especially the Tea Party folks — of being racist; and they look at this as an opportunity, in some ways, to show that, well, when you have a black candidate that is not steeped heavily in identity politics, which in the United States is heavily left-wing, and somebody that embraces what they consider to be the most important aspects of the American creed — including individualism, the ability to pull oneself up by their own bootstraps, to succeed in business and as an entrepreneur — that they're more than happy to look past color and support a black candidate. I think they see that in Herman Cain.
JD: Do you think it'll travel beyond conservative Republicans, into moderate Republicans?
SF: I do think there is an appeal there, again mostly because of Cain's own achievements and accomplishments in the private sector, and his dynamic ability to communicate his ideas, and to — up until the most recent controversy that he's facing — to at least deal with the media in a very hands-on, down-to-earth way.
So I think it could spread; but again I don't know, and I don't like to prognosticate political outcomes.
JD: You say in your book, page 182: "While most Americans may not be aware of it, black and white Americans have sharp differences in opinion and outlook, and Obama's Presidency will likely make people more conscious of them." Do you really think most Americans are not aware of this? That the political segregation you talk about has gone unnoticed?
SF: I do. I think that today, in the public sphere, it's just considered impolite to even think too deeply about differences between people on the basis of race. So I don't think most Americans bother to do that too much.
The two pieces of evidence that I bring to the table on this are:
The Republican Party, number one, which continues to believe that if they play to the left slightly, in front of black audiences or through black media, that they can shave off a large portion of the black vote. And it's been continuously shown that the Republican candidate, whether an arch-conservative or a moderate centrist, however they're defined, that they cannot shave off a large percentage of the black vote. And that is because the differences go right to the core of black identity.
Black identity is heavily politicized, and associated with a strong belief in a centralized government.
The other example that I always use: I teach at the college level at Stony Brook University, and I have taught at many different colleges. On many different occasions you will have a black student in class, very astute, very diligent in their work, and very polite, but who every so often comes up with an interpretation of a topic or an event in American history or public policy where a lot of the white students are drop-jawed. They basically can't believe what the black student is saying.
So for an example, I was making the case the other day to a graduate class where I was saying …
JD: I'm sorry, Seth, you teach Social Studies, right? Social Science?
SF: Social Science, Political Science, and History, yeah.
So I was saying to the class that roughly after about the year 1500 there was this great divergence in the standard of living between the West and all the other peoples of the globe, and I was making the point to try and get to some things about Western ideas and philosophy that might have led to that break, to that divergence. And one of the very good black graduate students that I have in the class refused to cede the point. He refused even to cede the point that the West's standard of living was higher by almost any measure beginning from the 16th century onward. I guess there was a feeling out of some solidarity with other Third World or dark-skinned peoples of the world that their civilizations had achieved at least as much, at least as high a level of physical or material comfort as the West has.
So I couldn't really go on with the lesson until I had fully convinced, or tried to, this one student, that in fact the West's standard of living has been higher for a few centuries. More recently there's been something of a convergence.
But things like that happen all the time: basic principals that are widely accepted among college students and others … basic points are openly refuted in a, sometimes a very shocking way.
So there are great differences between my black students and white students that are very rarely talked about until a point of discussion comes up that brings them to the surface. That is kind of what I'm saying has happened with Barack Obama's Presidency. Many of these differences have bubbled below the surface. Polite society doesn't like to bring them up, but now that they are … that there is a black President, and he is a bare-knuckled street fighter in the multicultural wars, many of these things now have come to the surface.
JD: Yeah. I guess … I find I always have to discount my own political interest. You know, I hang out with political people, I work for political magazines, and doing that you tend to forget how little interested in politics most people are. So it's not just that the … probably a majority of Americans aren't really interested in these issues of black politics; huge numbers of Americans aren't hardly interested in politics at all. What do we get, what's the turnout at a general election? Is it sixty percent?
SF: That would be excellent.
JD: Yeah. So we do tend to forget that.
SF: There is one thing I would say about that, and I've always said, and that is because power in our federal system in America is decentralized, there are so many levels of government that have some kind of democratic election of some kind, down to the school district, to the town, to the village. Perhaps if you added all of thouse outcomes, those turnouts together, it would come to sixty percent or seventy percent of the population. I don't know that, I haven't seen research on it. I'm just suggesting that because so much of our decision-making isn't made at the federally centralized level, that it seems that our Presidential turnouts are low.
JD: Yeah, maybe.
I guess for a patriot, the most worrying theme in your book is the one encapsulated in the title of Chapter 6, "Obama's Radicalism and the Damage to National Unity." There's Obama's long record of associating with extremist anti-Americans: Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers, the New Party and the ACORN crowd, and so on.
Do you think, after the way Obama was allowed to skate on all that by journalists determined to help him get elected, do you think that background issues can ever again be used to disqualify a candidate, resulting in more dubious and extremist office-holders? Or is this more a left-right thing than a black-white one? — after all, Bill Clinton got a media pass on a lot of ugly stuff, too.
SF: Yeah. I don't know the answer to that question, but I will say that it took a serious black candidate to, like you say, skate past so many of the things that would have been unacceptable if the candidate were a white candidate — to open the door, so to speak.
Now, I would say that at least for nonwhites, you're going to see a great deal more latitude with regard to future candidates, and really what amounts to anti-Americanism. Up until Obama's candidacy I don't think, my research doesn't show, that anybody could participate, or be associated with people who participate, in such things as the bombing of a police station or the U.S. Congress like Ayers was, and Jeremiah Wright's rantings and ravings — that a candidate, a serious candidate for President, could not be associated with that and be victorious.
Obama has shown that at least for a black candidate, you can. I don't know if that will be the case for a white candidate. My impression is that it won't be. You will not have that kind of latitude.
But, as of now, through this date today, nonwhites will still be forgiven if they can make a strong showing. In other areas they will be forgiven a decent amount of anti-Americanism.
JD: Hm. A lot of people, including me, believe that John McCain threw the 2008 election. He wouldn't allow his people to bring up Rev. Wright, Bill Ayers, Obama's support for things like driver licenses for illegal immigrants, any of that. And the reason McCain threw the election was that an American of his generation, who saw Jim Crow with his own eyes, is an easy sell for the black guilt-mongers, a reflexive racial cringer. He just couldn't face down the race-guilt lobbies.
Now, in your book you say: "Under Obama, young blacks and whites have diverged in the way they view their own futures, with black students feeling empowered and white students growing more cynical."
Do you see any sign that younger Americans are more resistant to brow-beating by the race lobbies? Are we coming out of the white-guilt tunnel at last? Is the race cringe now just a thing older Americans do? Or is it now permanently encoded in our national DNA, to be passed on down to future generations?
And what about Mitt Romney in this context? If next year's general is Obama vs. Romney, will Romney feel obliged to throw the election too?
SF: I don't think that the younger generation has any inclination to throw off the reflexive white racial guilt. And that is only because it is institutionalized in the United States, particularly in the institutions that young people are most familiar with — that is, their public-school education, and their colleges and universities. That is where, basically, the study of oppression and victimization of blacks, or nonwhites, in this country is given a thorough rendering, and that it's taught as a sort of inescapable and generally unending kind of situation here in the United States.
So from what I've seen in young people, I do think that … I don't know if you'd call it white guilt, but I do think there's a tendency to at least cede racial politics to nonwhites, African Americans — at least give it to them, even if you oppose certain measures or specific policies.
So I don't see an ending in this generation. I think it's become a permanent feature of our educational system, and for that reason it'll stay.
The other thing that I would add, with regard to the Presidential race, is that Romney probably would, on racial matters, cede the issue to Obama. I don't think he'll be obliged to throw the election, only because there's so much more now to Obama's record that can be openly, directly attacked. I believe that if it is Romney, and it looks like it will be, he will do everything in his power to avoid any kind of racial or multicultural issues in the campaign.
JD: He's going to be walking on eggshells, though, isn't he? Because they're going to do everything they can to pin racism on him, whatever he talks about. Remember Charlie Rangel telling us that if you favor lower taxes, that's racist. Anything can be racist nowadays.
SF: Yes, especially any opposition to Obama.
SF: Some of the charges that came out of the health-care debate, by congresspeople like Diane Watson of California …
JD: Yeah, you quote one in your book — I forget who it was — who said that if you don't support this health-care measure you're not a real black person.
SF: That's right. That was Jesse Jackson that said that.
JD: Yeah, OK, yeah.
SF: I think there's going to be — as even Tavis Smiley has said, coming from the other end of the political spectrum — he believies that it'll be an ugly, racist, or race-filled campaign. I have a feeling it will be, but the invective will be flowing mostly from the left.
JD: You point out that the biggest loss of support for Obama between 2008 and 2010 was from working-class and middle-class whites. His strongest defenders are among, on the one hand, the wealthy of all races, and on the other, poor minorities. Do you think this is a permanent new arrangement in U.S. politics, somewhat like the old Whig alliance in England — top and bottom united against the middle?
SF: Yes I do, and when I say "permanent" in the United States, I really mean, like, twenty years. In the United States nothing, especially political coalitions, don't seem to last any more than a generation or two.
But for now I will say that it's going to be top and bottom against the middle; and I view this mostly from a geographic standpoint, and that is that the high-density coastal regions — the west coast and east coast in the United States, and near and around very large high-density cities — that will be — and is, when you look at the red-and-blue map of the United States — that is where you get your blue, liberal-Democratic regions. And it consists mostly of well-to-do, upscale urban liberals — white, for the most part — and poor newcomers, immigrants, and blacks, for the most part, even though the most recent census show that Americans continue to suburbanize, Americans of all colors.
But where there is — and Steven Sailer's a writer that talks a lot about this — where there is a "dirt dearth" — a dearth, a lack, of dirt to build, to sprawl, to have single-family detached houses, to fit middle-class families in — where you don't have that, in high-density areas, you tend to have the very wealthy, who can afford all of the amenities of privacy, high up in the sky in a big, expensive, Donald Trump-type tower, and private school; and you have the newcomers who come from very poor countries, or the unskilled poor minorities.
In the red areas you see mostly exurbs — sprawl areas, areas where they can still build, fairly cheaply, single-family detached houses that can fit families with young children … not quite as red as the cities are blue, but mostly red and mostly conservative — households with children under eighteen, especially married ones, tend to be Republican voters: again, not with the intensity of the urban liberals, who are eighty, ninety percent Democrat: in these red sprawl exurbs you still have fifty-five percent, forty-five percent Republican, and that's going to be the middle class, that's where it is, those are the fastest-growing counties.
One of our best demographers, Joel Kotkin, has said that the Democrats do have a demographic advantage, in that single professional women and Hispanics are the fastest-growing voting blocs. On the other hand Republicans do have a geographic advantage, because the counties they win in Presidential elections are the exurban counties, the sprawl counties, and they, on the other hand too, are the fastest-growing counties.
Geographically Republicans seem to be in a good spot; demographically, the two largest, fastest-growing groups, Hispanics and single women, still vote Democrat.
JD: And another factor in what Steve Sailer calls "the Dirt Gap" is that in these coastal cities, these established coastal cities, you've got an established structure of public-sector union workers, which you don't have when somebody creates a new exurb. I mean, you're going to need people to maintain the roads and so on, but it's ab initio, it's coming from nothing, whereas in the big cities — I know in New York city — you have these established, set-in-concrete public-sector union structures encrusted with privileges and benefits, and very skillful at political negotiation …
JD: And of course very Democrat.
SF: Very Democrat. And you know that … I am a public-sector unionized employee myself …
JD: Oh, dear.
SF: … I can speak to it, I think, without any kind of contradiction, but really, in these big blue metropolitan areas, the shrinking middle class is very much, increasingly made up of public-sector workers; and we see that out here, really, even in Long Island, a suburb of New York City, where, you know, if you get a household with a police officer of fifteen years and a teacher of ten years, you're talking about a quarter of a million dollars of income, for a household. People at that education or skill level in the private sector really don't approach it.
So we're seeing in New York City and its surrounding suburbs, we're seeing the middle class shrink to about thirty-five, thirty percent of all households; and a good portion of that, perhaps half, are now coming from government work.
JD: In your chapter on Obama and the Hispanic vote, you seem to suggest that the great success of black grievance politics in extracting favors and preferences from whites is an inspiration to Hispanics, who are now building a grievance culture of their own on the black model, hoping to win the same kinds of concessions and benefits from whites for their people. You show how Obama is actively encouraging this.
But in helping to foster Hispanic grievance culture, aren't blacks calling down fire on their own position? Quite apart from opening up new fissures in our society, to the detriment of everyone, aren't they contributing to their own dispossession?
Hispanics don't nurse any guilt about blacks. We're already seeing ethnic cleansing of blacks from our cities as Hispanics move in; and in a racial spoils system, even in a country as rich as ours, there are only so many spoils to go around.
Isn't squeezing the spoils out of a dwindling proportion of whites going to be a zero-sum game at last: more for me, less for you? Isn't Obama, for short-term political advantage, working against black collective interests here?
If you think he is, do you think he knows he is?
SF: Yes, is the answer I would give to your first question, which is, are blacks — or Obama — working against black interests by basically aligning themselves with Hispanic immigrant groups and other very Hispanic-identity-related groups like La Raza, in the hope of course that there will be a shift in power from whites to some ambiguously-defined nonwhite voting bloc.
But I do think it's mistaken. I do think you're right. I think that once the United States becomes mostly about a racial spoils system where newcomers and people that already are here organize themselves in order to extract special considerations, special laws, affirmative action, racial preferences, from the government — as soon as that happens, that all groups will lose in the end.
And I'll point out that no group of any size has suffered as much in terms of low wages that have been in part caused by the availability of low-skilled illegal Hispanic — mostly Hispanic — workers than low-income blacks.
Wages at the lowest end of the income spectrum have been depressed for two decades now. Blacks are over-represented among those workers; and the reason for that is an unending supply of low-cost labor from abroad.
So to be, as most black groups are now, most civil rights groups are now, to be for an open or liberalized mass immigration — open immigration, an open-borders immigration policy — directly works against the poorest blacks, as it does the poorest Americans.
Whether you think it's a good thing overall for the economy to have cheap labor for efficiency purposes — whether that's the case or not, you cannot deny that at the lowest end of the income spectrum, where blacks are disproportionately represented, wages have been depressed.
Now I will point out to you that historically, civil rights groups, the NAACP, CORE — the Congress on Racial Equality — have been among the strongest opponents of mass immigration, because they had always argued that newcomers to the United States always stepped over blacks. They were always favored, especially when they were European immigrants and white, they were always stepping over the blacks to get into the middle class first.
Now that has changed because of an emphasis on black power, on racial identity. The object is to build a nonwhite-majority alliance; and that even if the initial effect is to hurt low-income blacks, that in the end the shift in power, like I said, to this ambiguous nonwhite majority, is the main goal of civil rights groups now, not the protection of low-wage black workers.
JD: All right, Seth, let's talk about Obama. Do you think Obama's a paper tiger? Do you think, as I do, that he is, in person he's actually a bit of a sissy?
You quote in your book from Obama's autobiography, where he's talking about how Malcolm X promised, quote, "a new and uncompromising order, martial in its discipline, forged through sheer force of will." I remember smiling when I read that. I mean, was there ever anyone less martial than Obama?
You mentioned Steve Sailer there a minute ago. I always thought Steve Sailer nailed Obama's psychology exceptionally well when he called him "a black wigger." In other words, Obama's basically just a pleasant, mild-mannered, well-brought-up, middle-class white kid who desperately wishes he were black — the paradox being of course that he actually is black!
Doesn't the rising discontent on the hard left suggest that from their point of view, Obama's turned out a bit of a squish?
SF: All those are very good points. Let me just consider for a second …
Obama has gone back on some of his stated campaign objectives. Not all, but some, and some of them are significant.
So, for example, he has not eliminated the Bush tax cuts. He did not pull troops out of Iraq the first year, as he said he would. He tried to, and signed an order, to close Guantánamo Bay, but because he was unable to place those prisoners in foreign countries that would take them, he ended up not doing that; and there have been one or two other major decisions, such as trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in federal court: eventually they had to pull back on that because of the public outcry.
But in other instances — and I think on the most important instances — he has gone full-bore to try and implement the transformation of the United States, as he had wanted to from the beginning.
And of course his signature achievement, which is the health-care overhaul — or Obamacare, whatever you want to call it — and the seemingly unending stimulus spending, have been major achievements from his viewpoint in terms of transforming the United States.
So I wouldn't call him a squish ideologically. I think he is who he says he is. Is he a bit of a kale-eater? Er, yeah, I …
JD: A "kale-eater"? I never heard that before.
SF: Yeah, you know, [laughs] a tea-sipping, a green-tea-sipping kale-eater … Yes, he has a little bit of the faculty lounge …
JD: With his pinkie crooked?
SF: Right, right. He has a bit of the faculty lounge in him, there's no question; but ideologically I do think he's pretty strong.
I don't think he's what you might call a squish; but I'll also point out about the hard left and their disillusionment, or supposed disillusionment with Obama: I don't think that this Occupy Wall Street crowd is out there, or that they exist, because he has failed to achieve so much of what he set out to do, or has turned back on it. I think there's some of that; but I think that they are trying to divert attention from the fact that so much of what Obama has done is now politically unpopular.
They want to try and re-establish, as Obama has, Wall Street greed and free markets as the reasons for the country's failure in the last three years. They want to take the onus off Obama's policies — like health care, spending, deficits, and of course future tax increases — from people's minds and put it back where they think it belongs, on Wall Street.
JD: Got it. So they're deflecting the attacks on Obama?
SF: Deflecting, yeah.
JD: I think I got that, too.
In your book, writing of that 2009 incident in Cambridge, Mass., where Henry Louis Gates was arrested breaking into his own home, you say, quote: "Many high status blacks have much more to gain from identity politics than from a color-blind America."
Do you actually see any prospect of a color-blind America? Given the huge and intractable group differences in behavior — I mean, things like crime and illegitimacy — and in academic test scores, and so on, and the dismal record of black societies everywhere, do you think that the temptation for blacks to blame their misforunes on white malice, and the temptation for whites to blame them on black incapacity, can ever be eradicated? Or will those temptations just get stronger?
SF: I think that they can be eradicated, but I don't think they will be as long as we have institutions that are, that treat blacks as damaged goods.
Somewhere, round about 1965 when Lyndon Johnson made his famous speech to Howard University, where he said that what we seek is equality in practice rather than equality just in law, or something to that effect, from that point …
JD: Wasn't that the speech that gave us the phrase "affirmative action"?
[I mis-remembered, probably by recalling that LBJ used the phrase in an executive order, which I think brought it into common currency. However, the phrase seems to have originated with John F. Kennedy, who had used it in a different executive order four years previously.]
SF: Affirmative action, yeah. From that point, it has been institutionalized that the inequality of blacks is mostly driven by white racism; and as long as blacks are treated by universities and law schools and medical schools and government contracting agencies like they are damaged goods, blacks very properly will continue to see many of their issues stemming from white racism.
So as long as we've institutionalized the idea that blacks … or that the playing field can never be made level for blacks, well then, many blacks will continue to go ahead and believe in that.
However, I do want to say that I am a person who believes that culture matters, as the very famous book on that, with that phrase as the title, has it. Culture matters, and cultures can change. Wasn't it Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the great senator, that said that culture matters in the success of individuals and civilizations; but, on the other hand, politics can change the culture.
Well, if we ever do get a politics, and a policy, that treats everybody like equal citizens, without special exceptions — without being part … without the assumption that being part of a group, or an accident of birth, is holding them back — if we can manage to get that out of our public policies, then I do think you will see a slow but inexorable annihilation of the view that individual blacks, or nonwhites, or gays, or Jews, or anybody else, are being held back because of external factors, or root causes based in a corrupt society.
JD: Yeah, this comes up a lot in these kinds of discussions. I hear the phrase, for example, "the infantilization of black Americans" — that they, you know, they can't be held responsible for their actions, they need to have their hands held by white people; which if I were black I'd find deeply offensive. But that seems to be a theme underlying a lot of policy, a lot of social policy.
SF: Yeah, there's been, as I detail in my book, there's been a kind of an intellectual revolt, almost, among black intellectuals with Obama's election, that, er, you know, we'd better not let Obama's election convince enough people that white racism isn't a problem any more in the United States. And there have been several books now out about it, and many newspaper and journalistic articles about the institutionalization of white racism.
So while whites may in fact be amenable to electing a black President, the argument goes, much of our white racism is institutionalized in, let's say, white suburban school districts, where real estate markets are rigged against blacks so that they can't get into a decent school district, and that's the kind of racism that has to be dealt with now.
So there's almost a panic among so many black intellectuals and elites who make their living from some kind of a civil rights activity based on unfairness, society's unfairness to blacks. There's a panic that those positions may be unfunded, or not be lasting into the future, and we've seen that in many of the writings of black writers today.
JD: You quote Tavis Smiley's prediction that the 2012 presidential election is, quote from him, "going to be the ugliest, the nastiest, the most divisive, and the most racist in the history of this Republic."
If it's a Romney-Obama match-up, I think Smiley's right. We'll be hearing charges of racism 24/7. Every speech the white candidate makes will be sifted for racism, and you bet they'll find it.
Do you think that this, if it occurs, will hasten the wearing-out of the word "racism" — like inflation destroying a currency? There's already a lot of cynicism among whites about this word. I hear cynicism all the time. The edgier kinds of young white comedians are already openly mocking the racism idea. I'm thinking of the Daniel Tosh show on Comedy Central, which runs a regular spot titled "Is it racist?"
Where edgy comedians go, the larger culture often follows. Could we come out of the 2012 campaign with "racism" a joke word among whites?
SF: Well, I think that it already is, to a large extent.
Like you say, this kind of … race-mongering, for lack of a better term — "mau-mauing," Tom Wolfe called it — but, yes, whites are very cynical about claims of racism, and have been for a long time; but politically it really hasn't been damaging to blacks, or Democrats, or liberals, because what it has done, it has served to energize black voters.
So when charges of racism are made, it's not that you're convincing a lot of whites that there either is or there isn't racism, you're convincing a lot of blacks that it's important for them to vote, and to vote one way; and that is, for Democrats.
On the other side, it hasn't been … The fact that whites are cynical about claims of black racism has not been a boon for Republicans only because most white voters don't vote on racial matters as long as they don't see the racial politics as being harmful to them in any direct way. And now they don't. They will not vote or go to the polls on the basis of their being racially conscious. That's what I call in the book "the de-racialization of the white vote." Blacks are still very racialized in their voting patterns, whites for the most part are not.
And, to just further flesh that out, I will say that the nineties, the 1990s drop in crime of all kinds, by all people, had a lot to do with the greater relaxation among whites when it comes to racial matters. When cities were much more dangerous places to be, and when the face of crime was very often black, it was a national issue.
I'll just recall that in the Presidential campaign of 1988, when it was George Bush Sr. against Michael Dukakis, that there was the famous commercial that Bush used …
JD: Oh, Willie Horton, yeah.
SF: … Willie Horton, to draw attention to Dukakis's very liberal policy on letting felons out of prison for a weekend or two to get them acclimated to society. Willie Horton's face— a black felon — was plastered on advertisements across the nation, and reportedly that had a very large impact on the white vote, seeing Dukakis as soft on crime. But again, the Democrats found that that had very harmful racial overtones, or undertones, or what have you.
Be that as it may, crime is not the problem it was, and so now does not weigh heavily on white voters.
JD: Just going back to that Henry Louis Gates incident, you write that, quote: "At the time of his arrest, the city of Cambridge had a black mayor and was located in a state with a black governor with a black President."
That brought to mind something I often find myself thinking: that blacks are natural politicians. The kinds of gifts a politician needs, I mean, are particularly widespread in black culture: skills in the presentation of self — oratory, mimicry, charm, salesmanship. Like everyone else, I've had a lot of encounters with salespeople; and although I strive to be impartial in one-on-one encounters, I always seem to find the black salesman especially persuasive.
With those kinds of gifts so widespread, and wafted upward on thermals of residual white guilt as Obama was, it's surprising to me that we don't have more black politicians — though we have a lot, as you observed. What do you think of this idea, Seth? Are blacks natural pols?
SF: Yeah, I do think that there are cultural traits that African Americans bring to the table, some of which, like you outlined— oratory and mimicry and salesmanship — I think in the ghettoes of the postwar decades they used to play a game called "the dozens," which was always about out-doing the other guy with an insult …
JD: Yeah, yeah. "Yo' momma …"
SF: "Yo' momma …," right.
So I agree that there are some cultural traits. And by the way, they used to say this about Irish Americans, or Irish immigrants, that they became quickly in control of the big city political machines because they had "the gift o' the gab," and were very gregarious, and always had the, sort of, the red cheeks and the smile, to convince people to vote for them; so the Irish have a very strong presence in American politics. I think that's true with blacks.
The reason I don't think we see more is because of racial gerrymandering. The courts have allowed, consistently, states, or state legislatures, to organize election districts to ensure the election of a black candidate. That has had the effect of having a lot more black elected officials on legislatures, but it's also segregated them.
So black officials are much more likely to be present, or to represent only black constituencies, or in the vast majority black constituencies. So whites really don't see them, don't get a chance to become exposed to them, and therefore they are not typically nominated for larger statewide office, or even for national office.
So I think that racial gerrymandering has the effect of segregating the black vote, and in turn, their representatives.
JD: Seth Forman, many thanks for coming in here today. I think the grotto should be open by now, if you want to head up there. The girls will fix you up with a drink and a towel.
SF: Thanks very much for having me, John.
JD: Seth Forman, ladies and gentlemen. His book is American Obsession: Race and Conflict in the Age of Obama, and it comes strongly recommended by Radio Derb.
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