Roland Burris, the man who got Barack Obama's Senate seat Credit: Keith Hale/Sun-Times

Do you remember the word Bobby Rush used to describe anyone who might question the selection of toothless political hack Roland Burris to fill Barack Obama’s vacant senatorial seat?

Think back. Almost a decade ago. December 2008.

Rod Blagojevich was out on bond, having already so badly mangled the deliberation process that he was muscled out of his Ravenswood home in handcuffs by the FBI. Still, he insisted on appointing a senator, as his final obscene gesture to the state he’d betrayed.

Anyone with an ounce of personal integrity cringed away from the poisoned chalice Blago was proffering with both hands.

But the septuagenarian Burris, who had space on his pharaonic tomb to list another accomplishment, grabbed it eagerly.

No? Don’t remember? It was a long time ago.

Rush, after thanking God that a black man had been made senator, urged anyone in the U.S. Senate who might oppose the former attorney general’s appointment not to “lynch” the man.

He went there. Easily. From long practice. Because really, the only reason a person would not want a 71-year-old undistinguished political functionary dropped into a seat in the United States Senate had to be racial hate.

Not to single out Rush. The charge of racism is a big hammer, and the temptation to grab it to bop whoever is saying something you don’t like is soooo tempting. Trust me. I’ve felt it reverberate against my skull many times—if you go on YouTube, you can see members of the black community picketing the Sun-Times, demanding I be fired for the obvious bigotry of pointing out that disgraced senator Carol Moseley-Braun was most certainly not going to defeat Rahm Emanuel and become mayor of Chicago, no matter how she cooked her poll numbers.

Spoiler alert: she didn’t.

So it’s tough to remain quiet while gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker gets the treatment. His crime: discussing the self-same tainted Senate vacancy with Blago—man, he’s the gift that keeps on giving, isn’t he?—on the FBI wiretap that was recently released, the same treasure trove being continually mined on every television courtesy of Governor Bruce Rauner.

On the recording, Pritzker calls former state senate president Emil Jones “a little more crass” than other candidates. Then-congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. is “a nightmare,” and secretary of state Jesse White is the “least offensive” choice Blago might make.

Jones, who retired in early 2009, immediately popped up to bask in his sudden relevance, deftly pulling the entire African-American community in front of him as a human shield.

“He insulted my whole community,” claimed Jones, demanding that Pritzker quit the race.

Did he now? Watching various black leaders nodding in approval behind Jones left me with one thought:

Have any of these people met Emil Jones?

“Crass” might not be the word I would chose. Though neither is “polished.” I’ve seen “crusty” uttered in relation to Jones without drawing community outrage. “Old ward heeler” might be closer to the mark—if that offends you, don’t get mad at me, because I lifted it from Barack Obama’s Dreams of My Father, where he used it to describe the man, one of his mentors.

The rule seems to be that black people can comment frankly on black people. But otherwise . . .

Let’s set aside Jones for a second and move to the second politician Pritzker mentioned, Jesse Jackson Jr., then representing the Second District. Does “nightmare” reinforce the argument that Pritzker is a bigot? Or was that term, as I would argue, a fairly neutral description of a man who would soon be overwhelmed by mental illness and end up in prison, followed by his wife? “Nightmare” also seems a word that might be used to convey the essence of Jackson without tagging the speaker as a hardened hater.

And Jesse White, “least offensive”—well, again, have you met the man? I spoke with him briefly at an event last Thursday. A very nice man. Could he also be considered bland, anodyne? I would say yes. Judge me accordingly.

There is no question racism is at work when politicians are evaluated by white Americans. That the same people who embrace the lying venality of Donald Trump also excoriated Barack Obama has to be a function of racism. Or madness. Or both, and the two are without question related.

But given the country’s horrendous history of racism, given the important role that bigotry still plays in so many aspects of modern life, it’s sad to see the term abused by those who really should know better. Like much trollery, the flinging of unwarranted charges of racism is designed to shut critics up. Commentary is a one-way street where certain mediocre politicians are concerned—you’re a valid voice so long as you’re praising them, but dare to disapprove and you’re George Wallace tightening his grip around an ax handle. That isn’t fair.

To make it worse, Pritzker responded by apologizing to everyone in sight. Which, to be honest, doesn’t make him seem very gubernatorial. He might have said instead, “Why should an American citizen not accused of any crime, like me, be confronted with his mildly judgmental small talk a decade later?”

I would have respected that more. But Pritzker isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, which is another column. Let’s end this by speaking plainly: Race is not just the third rail of American politics. It’s also the fire ax behind all-too-easily broken glass that irresponsible politicians of all colors grab for, accusations they start wildly swinging whenever they find themselves in a tight situation. They would have the public silently embrace the racism of low expectations by giving them a blanket pass because of the color of their skin. Don’t fall for it.   v