Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.
Charges of race-baiting are flying back and forth in the presidential campaign. Democrats say Republicans are talking about President Barack Obama coddling welfare recipients to stir up resentment among white voters and pander to the racists in their base. Republicans say Democrats are the ones playing the race card, by using slanderous charges of racism.
Actually, neither side has a monopoly on race-baiting. And both could do more to detoxify the climate in the political arena -- but they almost certainly won't. Race-baiting sells.
Take welfare. Yes, Mitt Romney's charge that Obama has gutted the work requirement of 1996 welfare reform is misleading. The waivers extend benefits for the hard-to-employ, but only as long as state agencies are steering them toward work -- and some of the governors who have requested such waivers are Republicans.
But is it subtly racist?
Few think that Romney would not have made the same charge if he had been up against a white opponent. On the other hand, the idea that anti-welfare rhetoric can have racial overtones isn't as absurd as some conservatives claim. They argue that Romney's liberal critics are the ones being racist, by stereotyping welfare recipients as black. But the critics are referring to a widely held belief: Studies show about 60 percent of Americans overestimate the percentage of African-Americans among people on welfare.
But here's the problem. Social issues that can serve as racial code -- crime, welfare dependency, affirmative action -- are also real issues that can be of concern to non-bigoted people, including African-Americans. If raising these issues sets off automatic shouts of "racist!," that's a form of race-baiting, too.
Thus, Salon.com editor Joan Walsh accuses Rick Santorum of pandering to racists in his convention speech. After attacking Obama's welfare waivers, Santorum spoke of "a nightmare of dependency, with almost half of Americans receiving government assistance" -- a figure that includes mostly white Social Security and Medicare recipients. Her conclusion: Santorum hopes white voters won't realize they're being called dependents and will only hear "the dog-whistles about the nonwhite."
That's some impressive mind-reading. Couldn't it just be that Santorum genuinely believes, as do many Republican voters, that excessive government dependency, regardless of race, is a bad thing?
Meanwhile, Republicans are playing catch-up with overblown claims of pernicious racial subtext. Vice President Joseph Biden's remark at a Virginia campaign event that Mitt Romney would "unchain Wall Street" and "put y'all back in chains" is being spun by conservative pundits as an accusation that Romney wanted to put black people back in chains. Biden's choice of metaphor may have been unfortunate, yet given that he was speaking to an audience that was at least half white, the idea that his comment was a deliberate appeal to racial fears is far-fetched.
Amid all these mutual accusations, there is a genuinely ugly strain of race-tinged discourse on the right: the fixation on Obama's connection to dark-skinned Third World people. It has manifested itself in the birth certificate obsession, the rumors that Obama is a secret Muslim, and now the documentary "2016: Barack Obama's America," which uses rampant speculation and dramatic imagery to argue that Obama is a Western civilization-hating heir to his anti-colonialist Kenyan father.
Romney and Paul Ryan could make a brave, unifying gesture by condemning this paranoid nonsense as an embarrassment to the conservative movement. And Obama and Biden could reciprocate by condemning the "all Republicans hate black people" cliche commonly found on the left. Unfortunately, neither team can do that without implicitly denouncing a non-negligible portion of its own base.
But one can always dream.