Normally, the story of John McCain's black family -- the ones who are planning to vote for Barack Obama -- might elicit some modest interest in terms of what it says about the complexity of race relations in America. But what's been even more interesting has been how John McCain has responded to the story ever since it surfaced. Initially, back when he first was doing the "Maverick" schtick in the 2000 primaries, he actually denied that the aristocratic Southerners from whom he was descended were slaveholders. But it really became impossible for McCain to deny their existence after a 2000 report in Salon in the course of which reporters showed him photographs and birth records in person and he had to concede to their existence. One account, In the South Florida Times, describes how McCain has handled the connection publicly and privately: White and black members of the McCain family have met on the plantation several times over the last 15 years, but one invited guest has been conspicuously absent: Sen. John Sidney McCain.
“Why he hasn’t come is anybody’s guess,” said Charles McCain Jr., 60, a distant cousin of John McCain who is black. “I think the best I can come up with, is that he doesn’t have time, or he has just distanced himself, or it doesn’t mean that much to him.” Other relatives are not as generous. Lillie McCain, 56, another distant cousin of John McCain who is black, said the Republican presidential nominee is trying to hide his past, and refuses to accept the family’s history. “After hearing him in 2000 claim his family never owned slaves, I sent him an email,” she recalled. “I told him no matter how much he denies it, it will not make it untrue, and he should accept this and embrace it.” She said the senator never responded to her email. In her CNN interview with Kyra Phillips, Lillie McCain discusses this further
PHILLIPS: Do you think it could make a difference with regard to diversity issues, issues of race, if John McCain did participate?
L. MCCAIN: I think it probably could. It would give him an opportunity to know us.
I e-mailed him back in 2000 to remind him of his ties to Tiak, Mississippi. I heard him say on I believe it was "Meet the Press," that his ancestors owned no slaves. Well, I certainly have carried the name McCain from the beginning of my whole life, and I've known of the ties to John McCain and tried to get him to communicate with me about that, but he has been unwilling, at least, to date.
PHILLIPS: Well he found out in 2000, to be fair to the senator there, and he did come forward and gave this quote -- "How the Tiak descendants have served their community and, by extension, to their country, is a testament to the power of family, love, compassion, and the human spirit." And then he added in the statement, "an example for all citizens."
That sure is a warm, fuzzy little sentimental quote from the senator, and the fact that it really says nothing in reality says everything we need to know about John McCain. Since the advent of the Southern Strategy under Nixon, the Republican Party has embraced its role as the Party of White Privilege. John McCain has made a modest career out of making rumbling noises toward some of the uglier aspects of this legacy within the GOP, and he's hoping that those rumbles will be enough to persuade moderate voters to back him. However, the cold realities of the history of race relations in America -- dating back to those dark eons when black women held in slavery were routinely raped and impregnated by their white owners -- still hover like a dark cloud over whites' vision of Golden Age America, the very vision that John McCain and Sarah Palin like to sell to their flocks like so much Coca-Cola. So it's perhaps not a surprise that, given the chance to banish that cloud by doing the human thing, the right thing, and embracing the black side of the McCain family, the Straight Talking Senator From Arizona chose essentially to run from them and hide. Because acknowledging them not only was too painful, but might prove too harmful to his chances of success in a political party predicated on white privilege. Moreover, this also fits what we know about his reflexive predisposition on civil-rights matters. This is, after all, the guy who voted against a Martin Luther King holiday back in 1984. Yes, as the wingnuts already note, Obama's maternal ancestors likely owned slaves, too. But then, it seems doubtful that Obama would hesitate to embrace the ancestors of those slaveowners, either. Running away from black family ties is not exactly a problem for Barack Obama. But it is for John McCain.