What Obama Says About Race

Assuming Barack Obama wins the Democratic nomination -- not such a risky bet at this point -- we will have at least nine months of conversation and coverage about what his candidacy means.
by | January 8, 2008 AT 3:00 AM

  Assuming Barack Obama wins the Democratic nomination -- not such a risky bet at this point -- we will have at least nine months of conversation and coverage about what his candidacy means. One of the big discussion points will be race, so it's worth thinking about some of the reactions we're seeing so far.

The first point, obviously, is that Obama is part of a rising generation of African-American politicians who came up well after the crucible of the civil rights years. For figures such as Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Newark Mayor Cory Booker, race and the "politics of victimhood" have not been central or even explicit concerns. They are just politicians with particular agendas of their own.

Their seeming transcendence of race in their public personas allows them to appeal to that same instinct in the culture that loves hugely successful blacks who don't make a big deal about racial issues. Figures such as O.J. Simpson seem to magnify and reflect back major differences between blacks and whites, while others such as Colin Powell, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Richard Parsons make us (and here I mean us white people) feel that race no longer matters.

Obama certainly speaks to that hope (if I can use one of his own buzzwords). I've heard some complaints that conservatives, who have fallen all over themselves in praising Obama, are somehow sneakily setting Democrats up for failure, believing he would surely lose in the fall. I don't buy that. I'm willing to take them at their word in this case.

For one thing, there is their obvious enthusiasm for anyone who can take down Hillary Clinton so cleanly and subtly. But the main point is that Obama really does represent conservatives' best hopes about race. All their arguments have been toward a color-blind society. The reason that they want to abolish affirmative action and any such preference programs is that they want to see all people be allowed to achieve on an equal footing, without regard to the color of their skin.

I think some of them have been cynical about that larger issue. But I believe they are genuinely ecstatic about the prospect of seeing their ideas actually play out in the person of Obama. They are being convinced by evidence not of their own making.

What about the liberals? Clearly, many are ecstatic, moved by Obama's success, his message and his manner of delivering it. Democrats can hardly believe that although their leading candidates are a black man and a white woman -- both liberals -- they are widely perceived as more pragmatic and centrist than the fractured field of conservative white males on the Republican side.

Yet there is still this hesitation about Obama, the fear that maybe he can't win. People who have spent the last seven years arguing that Hillary Clinton could never be elected because she is hated by half the country now are saying that maybe Obama is too big a risk, that Clinton would be more electable. There is concern, openly and widely stated, that this country will not elect a black man as president.

They may be be hinting at any number of things. They might be masking their own racism, arguing that they are precluded from voting for him because nameless others won't vote for him. They might be claiming for themselves the high ground of enlightened superiority -- I would vote for him, but others won't. Or they might be perceiving a simple reality -- that the country, despite the optimism of the moment, really isn't ready to take this leap.

I would be very curious to know how much overlap there is between the universe of voters who won't vote for an African American, and the universe of voters who wouldn't vote for any Democrat. Republicans hold no monopoly on prejudice, but many of the votes Obama won't get in the fall because of his skin color are ones no Democrat was going to receive anyway.

Finally, there is the question of how African Americans themselves perceive Obama. Clinton held their allegiance for the bulk of last year, out of affection for her and her husband but primarily out of the same sort of nervousness that I just mentioned -- that the country will not elect a black man.

Now that Obama is busy demonstrating his viability by winning in two of the whitest states in the nation (wait -- has he won New Hampshire already, or does it just feel like it?), blacks are breaking strongly for him. This happened in his 2004 U.S. Senate race as well. Already, blacks in the upcoming South Carolina primary are breaking 3-to-1 in his favor in polls. By the time they vote, I'd expect that ratio to be much higher.

I don't think we'll hear any more talk about whether he's "black enough." Clearly not all African Americans will be thrilled by Obama, but all or nearly all will be thrilled by what he and his success represent. Wouldn't you be?

As a last thought, there is this issue, already raised repeatedly in private conversations, about whether Obama could be a target of assassins. There is a primal fear of this. So many black leaders were gunned down during the civil rights movement, along with their supporters, the Kennedys.

But it has been more than 25 years since a bullet pierced a president or presidential candidate. As Obama emerges from the early contests as the clear frontrunner, he is about to go into a bubble, never to mingle with small, informal crowds again. That won't be all to the good, but certainly heightened security is one reason to hope that whatever madmen would be prone to target someone like him will never come close.