Tuesday, September 16, 2008

For Obama, Race Remains Elephant in the Room

Thanks to Jeff Chang for sending this out. It's most definitely worth reading because it's amazing that this close to election day you still have people hanging so passionately to any anti-Obama sentiment they can get their hands on and talking around one big issue that we all know still is very relevant to many (very silly) people.

Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama
Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama speaks during a Sept. 4 rally in Lancaster, Pa.

On a swing through Pennsylvania last month, John McCain visited a Manheim Central High School football practice — not to ingratiate himself with the players, who weren't even old enough to vote, but to identify himself with the gritty, down-home, lunch-bucket values of small-town football. "This is a blue-collar town," Manheim's coach said in his introduction of McCain. "We don't have a lot of flashy athletes. We don't come out with a lot of flash." But the coach explained that his team works hard, plays with discipline and comes through in the end. "A lot like John McCain," he said.

If you're familiar with the code words of the sports world, you've probably already guessed that Manheim's players had something else in common with McCain: they were white. On the other hand, athletes who are described as "flashy" almost invariably have something in common with Barack Obama. I'm not saying the coach was trying to inject race into his discussion of flashiness. I'm saying that sometimes we talk about race even when we're not talking about race — in presidential politics as well as sports. Sports announcers have at least made an effort to shed their stereotypes; they occasionally describe black players as "scrappy" or "blue collar," adjectives that used to be reserved for whites. But for political pundits, "working class" or "blue collar" or even "small town" voters still means white; blacks have their own category.

Race is the elephant in the room of the 2008 campaign. In West Virginia's primary, one out of every four Hillary Clinton voters actually admitted to pollsters that race was a factor in their vote; that may be an Appalachian outlier, but even in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio the figure was a troubling 1 in 10. It's a tribute to America's racial progress that a biracial man born before Jim Crow died could come this close to the presidency, but if you believe that contemporary America is color-blind, you probably also believe the Georgia Congressman who recently called Obama "uppity," then claimed he had no idea it was a traditional Southern slur for blacks who didn't know their place. ("Uppity" often modified the slur everyone knows is a slur.) Blacks are still known as "minorities" because this is still a majority white country, and Obama is just as anxious to avoid running as "the black candidate" as McCain is anxious to avoid running as "the Republican candidate." (See photos of Barack Obama's family tree here.)

This is something to keep in mind now that the Thomas Friedmans and Arianna Huffingtons of the world are imploring Obama to get angry, to shed his above-the-fray cool and fight back against the McCain campaign's silly-season accusations that he's a charismatic chauvinist who wants to teach kindergartners how to have sex. Over the past 18 months, Obama has been attacked as a naive novice, an empty suit, a tax-and-spend liberal, an arugula-grazing élitist and a corrupt ward heeler, but the only attacks that clearly stung him involved the Rev. Jeremiah Wright — attacks that portrayed him as an angry black man under the influence of an even angrier black man.

White America has shown an abundant willingness to support no-demands blacks like Tiger Woods, Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell and Will Smith, but a race man like Malcolm X would be another story. It was no accident that Bill Clinton tried to pigeonhole Obama in the primaries as another Jesse Jackson, or that Michelle Obama introduced her family at the convention as a new version of the Cosbys (or the Bradys). Obama's opponents want him to look niche, like BET or Chris Rock or the NBA; his challenge is to prove that he's also attractive to the ABC and Dane Cook and MLB crowds. During the primaries, Joe Biden took flak for his dopey description of Obama as "the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." Articulate is one of those racially tinged words that sports announcers use to express surprise that a black man can speak proper English, and clean hints at even uglier stereotypes. But the key word in that verbal vomit was mainstream, because it suggested that most blacks aren't. And the media perpetuates that idea by excluding middle-class blacks from their middle-class calculus.

This is touchy stuff, partly because "the race card" is not always, so to speak, a black-and-white issue. New York governor David Paterson recently accused Republicans of using "community organizer" as a subtle racial put-down; that seems hypersensitive to the point of paranoia. Obama was a community organizer, and his opponents should be able to criticize him without being accused of race baiting. But it's tricky when the attacks wander into the neighborhood of racial stereotypes, like the McCain "Celebrity" ad linking Obama to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, which had a whiff of lock-up-your-women alarmism about the sexual power of black men. The usually somnolent David Gergen lashed out at McCain's ad portraying Obama as the Messiah, calling it a subtle but intentional effort to paint a black man as The Other. "It's the subtext of this campaign; everybody knows that," Gergen said. "As a native of the South, I can tell you, when you see this ad, 'The One,' that's code for, 'He's uppity; he ought to stay in his place.' "

The McCain camp — before its recent forays into the politics of umbrage and grievance — dismissed the ad furor as political correctness run amok. "Have a sense of humor," spokeswoman Nicole Wallace told me. For his part, Obama never accused McCain (or Biden, for that matter) of playing the race card. He wrote eloquently about race in his books, and he spoke eloquently about race during the Wright flap, but he's avoided the subject ever since the McCain campaign accused him of playing the race card, after he suggested that Republicans would try to remind voters that he doesn't look like the Presidents on U.S. currency. I've already reported Obama's negative response to a New Hampshire voter who asked him to launch another Clintonesque national conversation about race: "All that self-flagellation, it's not useful. African Americans get all riled up, and whites get defensive." In a year when generic Democrats are trouncing generic Republicans and polls suggest that the domestic and foreign policies he supports are much more popular than McCain's, it's certainly not useful for Obama.

So Obama is probably wise to ignore the liberals who keep begging him to drop his air of unflappability and start taking Republican scalps. White America already embraces black celebrities, even "flashy" ones. But it has never really warmed up to an angry one.

(See photos of Barack Obama on the campaign trail here.)
(See photos of Barack Obama backstage at the DNC here.)

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  1. I wonder if Black America would vote for a Republican Black Woman (President Rice??)

    I know white Republicans would...

    Question...Who's stuck on race???

    Wake up Regina....

  2. No, you wake up! Your head is so stuck into that unoriginal, GOP boot strap gibberish that if someone discusses race it's a huge problem. Are you trying to say that race isn't a factor in a country where it's history of racism can barely be discussed?

    A candidate as dynamic and wildly popular as Obama but he has people still clinging to ridiculous rumors that he's Muslim (which what would be the problem if he were) and that he's in an extreme racist Christian cult (which would be a contradiction if he were actually Muslim).

    There was a CNN interview of a woman on the street in NYC in early June before Obama was officially the Democratic nominee. She's a white woman. She said she supported Clinton and that she would have rather seen a woman nominated. She says she won't support Obama and said something like she just didn't like him. She then added that she believed the US wasn't ready for black president. She went on to say "I'd rather vote for a woman than ....(pause, pause) Obama." That's all about his race, sorry mate.

    As to your point re Rice. No I wouldn't vote for Rice because of her stance on the issues not because she's a black woman. It's because she's black woman whose got a ridiculously simplistic view on the world AND when she was in power her ridiculously simplistic view on the world made the world a less safe place AND following that view the administration she was a part of reduced the moral standing of my country for years (and maybe even generations) to come. Not to mention that during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina Ms. Rice was taking in musicials and shoe shopping in NYC. No, I wouldn't vote for someone that out of touch with her fellow American citizens.

    However, please tell me where a rumor that Obama is Muslim is relevant considering Obama is more than clear on where he stands on many issues. No, it's the angry black man waiting to fool whitey, take over the nation and finally get revenge! Muhahahahahaha! That's bullshit and you know it, but I'll be dammed! There seems to be quite a few American voters who truly believe it. If they don't believe that, they're clinging to some notion that Obama simply isn't "right".

    I don't expect someone who holds on to Republican beliefs to support Obama. Why would you expect black Americans, who, in general, are Democratic to support Rice if she were the presidential candidate? Just because white Republicans would vote for Rice doesn't diminish one word of what Michael Grunwald wrote in this article. Race is a factor here. However, Obama is going to win IN SPITE of it.

    Actually what's most offensive about your comment is you pandered to me and used my name like I'm some illogical child. You wandered onto my blog and took a condescending tone.

    This was initially an email to you, but, you know what, you brought it publicly and I'm going to take on your publicly.

    Why don't YOU wake up Bill (last name deleted) and don't pander to me on my blog ever again.

  3. Excellent analogy Expat Jane. Also when people try to bring up the race issue with me I kindly remind them that blacks have voted for white candidates as well especially Bush the first time around so why is it a problem now.

    In addition, one must give up that fantasy that white repubs would vote for Rice. I'd say very few would just like Colin Powell. I mean when his name was brought up as a presidential nominee Repubs did all they could to discourage it so let's don't act like Repubs embrace Rice. Even she knows many of them wouldn't, that is why she refused to join Mccain and refused to endorse Palin.

  4. You very well might be correct. I can't claim to predict what a white republican would do re a black GOP candidate. I'd like to remain in my world of fantasy and hope they would look past race and to issues, but if they're not doing it now, why would I think they'd do it in another situation?

    I can't say that I understand much of what they believe or stand for. On certain issues I sometimes sound very Republican, but I just can't embrace a party that has courted the extreme Right for so long.

    I also don't know what's in Rice's head. Maybe after 8 years of buffon-level international relations maybe she's just ready to withdraw from politics. I can't say that since McSame has made a pathetic attempt to co-opt Obama's "Change" mantra that Rice would not be welcome anyway. They're distancing themselves from anything or anyone connected to George H.W. Bush because they want people to believe that change is about McSame taking on his party from time to time versus the actual change the policy proposed by Obama.

    Powell, I admire. When he saw the way things were going, he was brave and left the administration.

    I still, however, can't say who'd vote for whom in that scenario.

  5. Republicans would never vote for or nominate Rice for President, maybe VP. She is too smart and too cold. She is not personable at all and would get a lot of the same stuff about elitism that John Kerry got, that Hillary got, etc.

    Powell is another story. Powell might not get the Presidential nomination, but he could definitely get VP. After this election he may be able to get the Presidential nomination, but he won't run because he doesn't want his family exposed. If they had run McCain-Powell (as VP) in 2000 they would have beat Gore easily.

    As I've commented before, Gore ran a terrible campaign by distancing himself from Clinton and constantly making stupid errors/inaccuracies like the union lullabye comments that just made him look like a lying idiot. He should have won easily instead of having it come down to FL and the Supreme Court.

    Obama 2008!

  6. Hmmmmmm :(

    Great comment and I won't deny it's due to the sheer partisanship lean of it that I love it.

    I wrote out a nice long reply but I lost it and lack the energy to start over again.

    I'll just say I agree ;)

  7. I've been meaning to correct myself for a few days but either I forget to do it or I don't have the time.

    I made a comment above and wrote "George H.W. Bush" when I meant to write "George W. Bush". Of course, George H.W. Bush is our current president's father and I know that.

    Have I mentioned simply how much I hate typos?


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