Clarence Page: Lying about race our political pastime

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Some people found weird ways to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

While watching TV, for example, I was jerked alert by an ad touting deep discounts during Honda’s “Martin Luther King Day Sale.”

Really? Somewhere during my upbringing, I must have missed King’s “I Have a Dream of a New Honda Accord” speech.

But that’s only one case of what CBS News’ Money Watch site headlined as “Retailers Turn MLK Day into a Shopping Bonanza.”

Others offering great deals on MLK Day included Samsonite luggage and the Gap. Hennessey cognac also apologized after e-mailing recipes for “drinks MLK Jr. would be proud of.”

I suppose Dr. King’s own heirs set the tone for this commercial turn with their lucrative business of selling the rights to his speeches and texts.

They have a scheme.

But most of all, I wonder what the great civil rights hero would have thought of Sarah Palin’s brief King Day message to President Barack Obama on her Facebook page.

“Happy MLK, Jr. Day!,” the former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate wrote, followed by a famous King quote.

“‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.’ — Martin Luther King Jr.”

Which is followed by: “Mr. President, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. and all who commit to ending any racial divide, no more playing the race card.”

Eh? What “race card” was the president playing?

Palin did not say.

But The Blaze, a conservative news site founded by talk show host Glenn Beck, helpfully offered this quote from an Obama interview that The New Yorker published over the previous weekend:

“There’s no doubt that there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black president,” Obama said. “Now, the flip side of it is there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I’m a black president.”

If Palin has evidence that any of that is untrue, I’d like to hear it.

Obama is saying, in essence, that he’s not going to blame his disapproval ratings on racial bias any more than he’s going to credit his approval ratings to bias in favor of his biracial background.

But judging by what some of Palin’s die-hard fans tell me, she doesn’t have to. They hear Obama “playing the race card” every time he opens his mouth.

The Blaze did not mention that Obama’s quote came in an interview with New Yorker editor David Remnick about the sharp racial divide in Obama’s re-election vote and 2013 approval ratings, a divide that Palin’s remarks do little to bridge.

Is Palin playing the race card by accusing Obama of playing the race card?

She would hardly be the first to do so. Unfortunately, fanning tribal resentments in American politics is a long and bipartisan pastime.

“Nobody in politics or the press tells the truth about race,” my late column-writing colleague Jack Germond wrote in his 2004 memoir, Fat Man Fed Up. ‘‘We don’t talk about how the Democrats rely on the blacks and are fettered by that reliance. We don’t talk about how the Republicans play to the racial resentments of whites and are tarnished by that tactic.”

Jack knew well how today’s racially polarized political landscape was shaped during King’s era in the conservative populist backlash to the 1964 Civil Rights Act — a bill that passed, let us not forget, with mostly Republican votes against resistance from Southern segregationist Democrats.

America’s racial history can be seen as a series of events: Brief periods of racial cooperation and progress such as post-Civil War Reconstruction, the 1960s civil rights revolution and the election of Barack Obama, separated by turbulent uprisings of resentment-fueled backlash.

Obama may have been surprised by the ferocity of backlash against his presidency, but his interview shows that he understands history.

He has to do the best he can with what he has inherited, just as Dr. King did.

CLARENCE PAGE’s column is distributed by Tribune Content Agency.


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