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Playing the Race Card


The ’08 electoral dirty-tricks season has official begun. The Drudge Report’s recent posting of a photograph of Barack Obama wearing a white robe and turban presented to him by elders in Wajir, in northeastern Kenya, signals the wrenching-up to the next phase of political bad-will in the presidential contest.

The New York Times’ ham fisted effort at sexual insinuation over John McCain’s questionable liaisons with lobbyists so utterly failed as both reporting and a dirty trick that it will be easily forgotten. However, it’s unclear if the Obama photo was successful in stemming the growing popularity of the Illinois’ junior senator.

Drudge insists that the Obama image was sent to him from “Clinton staffers” and quoted an e-mail from an unidentified campaign aide. Hillary Clinton’s spokesman, Howard Wolfson, issued a statement denying any responsibility. “I just want to make it very clear that we were not aware of it, the campaign didn’t sanction it and don’t know anything about it,” he insists.

Obama’s 2006 visit to his father’s homeland was brought out of the archives in an effort to taint the electoral atmosphere. The race card is the oldest and deepest scare on American politics and is played to sow primitive racist nativism among white voters. It is often successful, but may not work this year.

The Obama candidacy will likely witness many more examples of the race card to discredit him, especially with regard to the rarely discussed issue of interracial sex and mixed marriages. As is well known, Obama’s parents were of different racial backgrounds and met as students at the University of Hawaii. His father, Barack Hussein Obama, Sr., was a Kenyan exchange student; his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, was an Anglo-American born in Kansas. His parents married in 1960, later divorced and died, respectively, in 1982 and 1995.

For four hundred years, people of different backgrounds like Obama’s parents crossed the sexual color line. Some of their experiences were motivated by mutual desire and love, others driven by rape and sexual conquest; some out of a transient commercial exchange, others resulting in life-long marriages. America suffers from a kind of sexual schizophrenia and interracial sex most acutely reveals this mania.

Today interracial sex is more acceptable, as evident in Census Bureau trend data and in anecdotal information involving prominent mixed couples and the children of mixed couples. However, this has not always been the case and even today, under highly-charged conditions, sex across the color line can invoke age-old sentiments that raise fears of the illicit, the forbidden. Given the Republican party’s repeated use of the “race card” to disparage adversaries, the coming election is the perfect storm where sex, race, politics and dirty tricks will play out.

* * *

Barack Obama is not alone among a growing list of celebrity off-springs of mixed couples. Many are well known and come from all parts of the U.S. culture industry. From sports, baseball player Derek Jeter, basketball player Jason Kidd and golf champion Tiger Woods; from music, Paula Abdul, Joan Baez, Cher, Jimi Hendrix, Prince and Tina Turner; from movies, Halle Berry, Martin and Charlie Sheen, and Raquel Welch; and from fashion, Naomi Campbell. Many more live ordinary lives outside the celebrity spotlight.

The growing number of mixed celebrity couples and marriages further normalizes interracial intimacies. From Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, former defense secretary William Cohen and former senator Carol Moseley Braun to Tiger Woods, Robert De Niro, and David Bowie and Iman, interracial marriage for many is no longer a social stigma or something they are ashamed of.

When Obama’s parents were married in 1960, this was not the case. At that time twenty-two states had laws prohibiting interracial marriage. These states ranged from traditional hard-core racist strongholds like Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana to otherwise moderate Delaware and Maryland.

However, it would be over a Virginia ordinance prohibiting interracial marriage that the issue would be finally laid to rest. In June 1958, two Virginia residents, Richard Loving, a white man, and Mildred Jeter, an African-American woman, sought to marry, but were banned by a state statute. Crossing the state line, the couple married in the District of Columbia and returned to Virginia to continue their lives together.

According to trial testimony, shortly after their return and in the middle of the night, their home was raided by the police and the newlyweds were arrested for their illegal cohabitation. Facing a felony conviction and the possibility of up to five years in prison, the Lovings pled guilty. They received a one-year jail sentence which was suspended on the condition that they leave the state and not return together for 25 years; the Lovings relocated to Washington, D.C.

The trial judge laid-out the prevailing opinion shared by many a half-century ago (and some even today):

Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.

The Lovings appealed their case and in 1967, nearly a decade after their arrest, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its now celebrated decision voiding “racial hygiene” laws then in force in Virginia and fifteen other states. The Court found that the state “anti-miscegenation” law violated the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment.

Today, forty years after “Loving,” Census data reveals that interracial marriage is becoming more common, increasing six-fold between 1970 and 2000; by 2000, it constituted 6 percent of all marriages as compared with less than 1 percent in 1970. As of 2005, about one of every 13 Americans was marrying a spouse of a different race or ethnic (e.g., Hispanic) background and more than 8.4 million people were in such marriages.

* * *

On April 5, 1615, Pocahontas, a Native-American woman and daughter of Chief Powhatan, married the Englishman John Rolfe near Jamestown, Virginia. The marriage took place just eight years after this first permanent English settlement was established in what would become the United States; it is the first recorded interracial marriage in the newly-colonized territory. It surely wouldn’t be the last.

In 1681 on William Boarmans’ plantation on the western shore of Maryland, Eleanor Butler, a white servant girl called Irish Nell, and Negro Charles, a black slave, were married by a local Catholic priest. This appears to be the first legal marriage between a black man and a white woman in new America.

During these early days of the new country, voluntary and noncommercial sexual relations between Euro-Americans and Native people as well as blacks and whites were not illegal. However, while some objected to the marriage between Irish Nell and Negro Charles (most notably Lord Baltimore, Nell’s master) no one sought to prevent it. What most troubled many local whites was that Nell, marrying a slave, would forfeit not only her own freedom but also the freedom of her children.

Interracial sexual encounters took three principal forms during America’s formative era: between Euro-American and Native people; between white indentured servants and African-American slaves; and between white free persons and black slaves. However, these encounters played out along two lines: in terms of gender dynamics and whether they were “voluntary”. And these lines made all the difference.

Columbia University sociologist Aaron Gullickson argues that “interracial sexual contact likely peaked sometime during the early colonial period when white indentured servants and black slaves were in close contact in large numbers.” [Social Forces, September 2005] However, as indentured slavery declined and the forced importation of African slaves skyrocketed, widespread interracial sex of this kind declined.
Colonial male leaders were particularly troubled by interracial relationships between white women and black men. Sex between a white woman and a nonwhite man could result in a child of an African or Native man that was legally white.

This concern found particularly expression in what are known as female captivity narratives that helped rally settler resentment against Native people. These tales were popular in the late 17th century and championed women like Mary Rowlandson and Hannah Swarton who escaped capture by Native tribes while preserving their virginity; they were intended to undercut or deny the stories of women like Mary Jemison, Frances Slocum and Eunice Williams, women who, after captivity, chose to marry and live out their lives with Native people.

Bans on interracial marriage arose in the late 17th century. For example, in 1662 the Virginia Assembly established the first law against interracial sex and in 1691 it passed a law banning “negroes, mulattoes and Indians intermarrying with English, or other white women, [and] their unlawfull accompanying with one another.” Other colonies followed with similar bans, as exemplified by the North Carolina colony, which in 1715 adopted laws prohibiting interracial marriages.

As was commonly accepted, servant and slave women were vulnerable to sexual exploitation by their male master and other white males. White slave owners (such as Thomas Jefferson) engaged frequently and with impunity in forced sex, concubinage and informal sexual relationships with their female slaves.

Those who violated the growing anti-race-mixing climate faced potentially horrendous consequences. This could involve the whipping of naked slaves, the tarring of white women and the castration of black men. In some colonies, a black man found guilty of sexual congress with a white woman not only faced corporal punishments, but also branding and amputation; the white defendant could be sentenced to corporal punishment. Masters objected to the execution of the offending slave because it would result in undue economic hardship.

This environment of terror persisted through the Civil War and merely worsened during post-war Reconstruction. By the early-20th century, almost every Southern state had adopted what were known as “one-drop” statutes to restrict interracial marriage and preserve the white race’s “purity”.

Nevertheless, throughout this period, interracial couples challenged these restrictions. These challenges could be informal, clandestine love affairs as well as common-law marriages. However, the most serious challenge to conventional marriage took place at the short-lived Nashoba utopian commune located a full day’s coach ride from Memphis, Tennessee.

Nashoba was founded in 1825 by Frances Wright, the most charismatic woman in America during the antebellum era. It was a mixed community of free black and white men and women as well as ten or more African-American slaves. This arrangement of women and men, married and unmarried, black and white, free and slave, adult and child was an historically unprecedented attempt to remake civil society.

On June 16, 1827, James Richardson and Josephine Lolotte declared themselves married and began to live together. This arrangement is important now, nearly two centuries later, because Lolotte was a free black woman and Richardson a free white man. Equally important, because Nashoba was a radical (if flawed) experiment in not only interracial relations but free love, by living together Richardson and Lolotte declared not only their love and sexual desire for one another, but entered into a binding commitment outside the sanctity of church and state.

Nashoba, like so many other communitarian efforts in America’s peculiar history, drew the ire of contemporary moralists (including many abolitionists) and ultimately failed. But it set the stage for both formal and informal efforts by women and men to challenge traditional values as well as legal statutes prohibiting interracial intimacies. Cumulatively, these efforts set the stage for Barack Obama, Sr., and Ann Dunham to fall in love, marry and give birth to a child who just might become the next U.S. president.

* * *

Now, nearly four centuries after the marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe, nearly two centuries after Nashoba and forty years after the Loving decision, interracial relations are viewed very differently in America. According to a 2007 Gallup survey, “Minority Rights and Relations,” more than three in four Americans say they approve of marriages between blacks and whites. This is a significant change from only a decade ago when, in 1994, less than half of respondents approved. Younger respondents (regardless of race or ethnicity) report greater acceptance of interracial marriages than older Americans.

These findings are seconded by a 2006 Pew Research Center survey that found that more than one in five American adults say they have close relatives who are in different-race marriages. In 2005, more than 10 percent of married couples aged 20 to 29 had a spouse of a different race, compared with the national average of 7.5 percent. In addition, George Yancey, a University of North Texas sociologist, found that more than half of all black, Hispanic and Asian adults have dated someone of a different racial group.

These developments in American interracial social life are playing an important, if unstated, role in the 2008 presidential race. Attendees at Democratic primary rallies for either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama reflect a remarkably diverse racial mix, especially as compared with the nearly all-white Republican gatherings. If the Democrats do not implode in a blood feud, this growing multi-racial coalition, a long-term pillar of the Democratic party, will play a critical role in the November election. However, if Obama secures the Democratic nomination, one should not underestimate Republicans resorting to the race card in an effort to discredit his candidacy, particularly his mixed race background.

Republican dirty tricksters in the Karl Rove mode have repeatedly played the race card to undermine not only Democratic competitors, but Republican adversaries as well. The contemporary model for such racism was established in George Bush-the-elder’s campaign in 1988 when his campaign manager, Lee Atwater, linked the Democratic candidate, Michael Dukakis, to the prisoner Willie Horton. George Bush-the-lesser’s campaign employed a similar tactic in 2000 against today’s leading Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, during the South Carolina primary. Allegedly orchestrated by Rove, it was intended to smear McCain with rumors that his daughter Bridget was the product of an interracial fling. (McCain and his wife adopted the girl from Mother Teresa’s orphanage.)

In 2006, the African-American Tennessee Democrat, Harold Ford, Jr., lost his bid for the U.S. Senate due in large part to an incendiary television ad financed by the Republican National Committee. In the ad, a series of people in mock man-on-the street interviews criticize Ford’s stand on a host of issues. However, one of the people, an attractive white woman, bare-shouldered, declares that she met Ford at a “Playboy party,” and closes the commercial by looking into the camera and saying, salaciously and with a wink, “Harold, call me.”

The truth was that Ford, along with 3,000 other people, had attended a Playboy party at the previous Super Bowl in Jacksonville, FL. But truth means very little to Republican or Democratic hard-ball propagandists and their allies who play the race (or gender) card to discredit a serious political challenger. We’ve seen this earlier in the efforts by Hillary backers to discredit Obama.

Shortly before the New Hampshire primary, Bill Shaheen, a national co-chairman of Clinton’s campaign, floated the issue of Obama’s youthful drug use. However, Shaheen’s rehashing of this old story (which the candidate openly discussed in his biography) failed to garner any traction and he was forced to resign his position. Similarly, prior to the Iowa caucuses, two Clinton volunteers resigned after forwarding a hoax e-mail that falsely said Obama is a Muslim and possibly a terrorist. (Obama is a member of the United Church of Christ and says he has never been a Muslim.)

Clinton has also been subject to dirty tricks. On February 18th, MSNBC’s bad-boy conservative, Tucker Carlson, provided air time to no less a career dirty-trickster as Roger Stone to discuss his anti-Clinton 527 group, Citizens United Not Timid, or “C.U.N.T.” As Stone insists, “The more people go to the site, the more people buy the T-shirts, the more people wear the T-shirts, the more people are educated. Consequently, our mission has been achieved.”

Carlson surely knew (and approved) of Stone’s dubious background. He most recently came to national attention during the 2007 New York State gubernatorial campaign. As an advisor to state Senator Joseph Bruno, Stone left threatening telephone messages at the office of then-candidate (and state Attorney General) Eliot Spitzer’s father. He got his start in political dirty tricks as a volunteer at Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP).

However, the ugliest use of the race card to date is the attempts to discredit Obama’s mother and wife by, first, the Chicago Tribune [March 27, 2007], and, most disgustingly, the Asia Times [February 26, 2008]. The Tribune article goes out of its way to attempt to discredit and denigrate Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, a feminist and anthropologist, into a crazy, 60-ies, atheist hippy and lover and wife of men from different racial backgrounds. All that she is not accused of is being a dope smoker.

The Asia Times is even slimier and may well foreshadow what awaits Obama if he does secure the Democratic presidential nomination. After disparaging Michelle Obama’s undergraduate study of her own “blackness” while at Princeton, it goes on to false site the Tribune article, claiming that Obama’s mother: “Friends describe her as a ‘fellow traveler’, that is, a communist sympathizer, from her youth. ” No such reference to being a “fellow travel” appears in the Tribune article.

It then picks up the tempo of character assassination of Obama’s mother, insisting that “many Americans harbor leftist views, but not many marry into them, twice.” And after mentioning her role as an anthropologist, it states that Obama “applies the tools of cultural manipulation out of resentment against America. The probable next president of the United States is a mother’s revenge against the America she despised.”

As with the cases of Willie Horton, McCain’s daughter, the Ford ad and Stone’s anti-Clinton 527 group, C.U.N.T, America waits to see how the race card will be played in the unfolding presidential contest.

DAVID ROSEN can be reached at





David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at; check out

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