MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Today, John McCain's presidential campaign accused Barack Obama of playing the race card, quote, "from the bottom of the deck" for making this statement.
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): They're going to try to say that I'm a risky guy. They're going to try to say, well, you know, he's got a funny name, and he doesn't look like all the presidents on the dollar bills and the $5 bills.
NORRIS: The Obama campaign denied using racial politics but at the same time found itself confronting another feature of the racial minefield. It came from hip-hop artist Ludacris, a new song that praises Obama and harshly attacks John McCain and President Bush.
(Soundbite of song, "Obama is Here")
LUDACRIS: (Singing) …it's time to get out and vote. Paint the White House black and I'm sure that's got them terrified. McCain don't belong in any chair unless he's paralyzed. Yeah, I said it, because Bush is mentally handicapped. Ball up all of his speeches and just throw them like candy wrap.
NORRIS: The lyrics also diss Hillary Clinton and Jesse Jackson. The Obama campaign immediately condemned the song, calling it outrageously offensive. It quickly became a topic on conservative talk radio.
Kevin Merida is an associate editor at the Washington Post. He's written about how the Obama campaign deals with the race issue. Welcome back to the program.
Mr. KEVIN MERIDA (Associate Director, Washington Post): Hey, thank you, Michele.
NORRIS: First, I want to talk about the charges of using the race card. It's interesting because Obama was trying to say that the McCain campaign was the one using racial scare tactics by pointing out his race. It seems like while the candidates were running away from the issue of race for months, it's now -they're using it as some sort of cudgel or weapon.
Mr. MERIDA: You know, it's the elephant in the room in this election for Obama. I mean, he's been dogged repeatedly by Internet rumors, his name, his background. And what he's trying to do is say that, don't try to frighten voters, and he's trying to turn that onto the McCain campaign, turn that around to an advantage for him. In this case, you know - I don't know that McCain himself specifically - but the larger fabric of the opposition, they certainly have planned to use such tactics and try to make Obama seem someone uncomfortable for American voters.
NORRIS: You know, the question of how they use the tactics, whether it's done in overt ways or perhaps more subtle ways, someone suggested that the recent McCain ad about Obama's celebrity also has a racial subtext by juxtaposing Barack Obama with the images of two blonde celebrities. Is this is a case where people might be looking for racism under every rock, or is...
Mr. MERIDA: Yeah, every rock.
NORRIS: ...this just kind of static that hangs out there in the air?
Mr. MERIDA: You know, it's particularly hard for pioneers. The racial pioneers carry a lot of weight, whether you're Oprah or Will Smith, or whether you're Thurgood Marshall. There are so many expectations, but at the same time, you know, you want to be authentic to yourself.
And so, in the Ludacris case, you see that Obama is someone who has embraced hip-hop culture. He has said that he had Ludacris on his iPod. And at the same time, he is somebody who has also said that he doesn't support misogyny and has problems with the kind of lyrics that some rappers have used and he would love to have rap songs that his girls could listen to. So, his condemnation is he's representing himself and he's also not trying to throw the entire culture under the bus.
NORRIS: This song by Ludacris, it seems like it could be problematic on a few different levels. First there are the offensive lyrics. But there's also the sentiment about painting the White House black. And some in the Obama camp privately said that lyrics like that worry them, that they are concerned that it might make some white voters uncomfortable.
Mr. MERIDA: Well, it plays into an image that they worry about, that he'd be seen as kind of the black president, you know, the president for black America, like a Chris Rock movie or something. And he has tried his best to suggest that he's going to be the president for everyone. And so, of course, they don't want to have that kind of lyric.
And at the same time, you understand the excitement and the euphoria. I mean, this is the last great barrier to be removed in American public life, to have an African-American as president. Many African-Americans had never thought that they would see that during their lifetimes. And so, to have it this close, people can taste it, and they really have a lot of expectations. They want him to really be there.
NORRIS: Washington Post reporter Kevin Merida is an associate editor of the paper. Thanks for talking to us again, Kevin.
Mr. MERIDA: Thank you, Michele.