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Race-baiting Versus Elite-baiting

Ezra Klein sees race-baiting in Rudy Giuliani's bashing of community organizing:

But look, let's call a spade a spade: When Giuliani sneered about community organizers on the "South side" of Chicago, it's pretty clear what he's saying: Barack Obama spent his time rabble-rousing among black people. It's no different then when the RNC called him a "street organizer." It's fairly clear what they're trying to evoke. No reason anyone should help them mask it. A community organizer can be a PTA member or a Christian Coalition lieutenant. But that's really not what Palin and Giuliani are getting at. Obama organized poor black people. That's change you can fear.

Hmm, I'm not so sure. First, judging from this transcript, Giuliani never used the words "South side" of Chicago; he actually referred to the "Chicago machine." And while "South side" definitely conjures up images of black folks, I tend to think of the Daleys (and other white ethnics) when I think of the "Chicago machine."

In fact, I thought Giuliani's speech (and Palin's speech, for that matter) was pretty devoid of racial overtones. Yes, he snidely mocked Obama, but he snidely mocked him for being a squishy liberal elitist--hence his (totally hypocritical) line about Obama being "cosmopolitan." ("Cosmopolitan" might be a loaded term to hurl at a Jewish candidate, but I'm pretty sure it's a straightforward culture-war play against a non-Jewish one.)

I was actually a bit perplexed at first by Rudy's and Palin's community organizer-bashing but, if you deconstruct the term a little bit, it does have sort of a goo-goo-ish feel to it, conjuring up images of some Birkenstock-wearing guy supervising a cleaning day at the local park. Of course, the reality of community organizing couldn't be more different, and I think Obama would be smart to take the attacks head-on once the convention is over. He should talk about how, as a community organizer, he worked to help unemployed steel workers (many of them white) deal with economic hardship. Indeed, Rudy's and Palin's attacks on "community organizers" should join Phil Gramm's comments about a "nation of whiners" and McCain's losing track of his houses as just more evidence that Republicans are out of touch when it comes to the economy.

But, at the same time, I don't think we should rush to ascribe racial motives to the GOP's attacks on community organizers. Lord knows Republicans have already made racial attacks on Obama--and I'd imagine there will be more to come--but that means it's even more important that we not throw out the race-baiting charge willy-nilly, lest it gets so devalued that it loses all credibility.

--Jason Zengerle