In light of Barack Obama’s victory in the Iowa caucuses, I am revisiting a column I wrote on Oct. 29, 2006, about Obama’s presidential candidacy. I argued that his overnight rise to national prominence has everything to do with race, that many whites will vote for him because he does not make them feel uncomfortable.
I have not changed my mind.
Obama’s success in Iowa puts the campaign’s racial subtext in sharp relief. This is a complex issue most Americans would rather avoid. I am writing about it because we need to stop playing games with race — America’s rawest nerve — and deal with it forthrightly.
If Obama becomes the next president, he will do so primarily because of white support, especially the support of whites eager to prove that they are fair.
The fact is — which is good for the nation in the long run — large numbers of white people like the Democratic senator from Illinois. Many whites see Obama, like Colin Powell before him, as a black who has transcended race. He is the rare black politician who is not seen as a “black leader,” a designation of contempt reserved for the likes of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan.
Obama is what many blacks, along with some whites, pejoratively refer to as “an honorary white man,” one who can soothe white people. In the parlance of race studies, he is a “good black” rather than a “bad black.” Thus far, Obama, unlike Powell, has not dealt with this part of his appeal to whites. During an interview with Ebony magazine in 1995, Powell said: “I speak reasonably well, like a white person, and (visually), I ain’t that black.” Blacks such as Powell and Obama defy all of the negative black stereotypes. Powell is the child of Caribbean immigrants, and Obama is the child of a white Kansan and a black Kenyan. Neither has the tragic baggage of American slavery in their pedigree. Both are light-skinned and have what we blacks refer to as “good hair.” They are physically pleasing to most whites.
Both succeeded in bastions of white power. Obama earned degrees from Ivy League universities and serves in the U.S. Senate, a white man’s club. Powell rose to the highest position for a commissioned officer in the U.S. military.
And, for sure, neither Powell nor Obama is ideologically black.
Readers who will accuse me of harping on race need to know that Michelle Obama herself, the candidate’s wife, an American black, is fully aware of the role that race is playing in black America during this campaign.
When a TV host asked her in November to explain why her husband was trailing Hillary Rodham Clinton by 46 percent to 37 percent among blacks, she was unequivocal.
“First of all, I think that that’s not going to hold,” she said. “I’m completely confident. Black America will wake up and get (it). But what we’re dealing with in the black community is just the natural fear of possibility. You know, when I look at my life, the stuff that we’re seeing in these polls has played out my whole life. You know, always being told by somebody that I’m not ready, that I can’t do something, my scores weren’t high enough.
“You know, there’s always that doubt in the back of the minds of people of color. People who’ve been oppressed and haven’t been given real opportunities. That you never really believe. That you believe that somehow, someone is better than you. You know, deep down inside, you doubt whether you can do it, because that’s all you’ve been told, is ‘No, wait.’ That’s all you hear, and you hear it from people you love. Not because they don’t care about you, but because they’re afraid. They’re afraid something might happen. … That’s the psychology that’s going on in our heads, in our souls, and I understand it. I know where it comes from, and I think that it’s one of the horrible legacies of racism and discrimination and oppression.”
Here, the cogent observations of Peter Beinart, a columnist for the New Republic, are useful. He makes the point that Obama, unlike past black presidential candidates, enjoys a transformed political and racial climate and has been able to avoid issues that force black candidates to become divisive and “ideologically black.” One big change is that crime is not resonating as a political issue, Beinart writes. Earlier, however, blacks, along with other Democrats, had to prove that they were tough on crime to placate white voters.
“Had Obama run for president in 1992,” Beinart says, “he would have had to do something akin to Bill Clinton’s infamous execution of mentally retarded murderer Ricky Ray Rector — which would have hurt him with blacks. Today, by contrast, he can largely oppose the death penalty with hardly anyone seeming to mind.” Obama also does not have to face the divisiveness of welfare reform. As a result, Beinart writes, racist rhetoric and motivations have been removed from the debate over taxing and spending, and whites are less prone to accuse blacks of being too dependent on the government.
“That’s good news for all Democrats, but especially for Obama, who would be particularly vulnerable to suspicions that he was trying to redistribute money from whites to blacks,” Beinart says.
When the South Carolina presidential primary rolls around on Jan. 26, race will be a major factor in the Democratic primary because 51 percent of the state’s registered Democrats are black, and they are expected to make up the majority of voters on the Democratic side.
“South Carolina’s contest is as close to a ‘black primary’ as we’re going to get in 2008 — the only time in the entire campaign, almost certainly, when Democrats will be fighting all-out for African-American votes,” according to the latest issue of the Nation magazine.
So, instead of pretending that Obama’s skin color does not matter, we should use this campaign as an opportunity to be publicly honest about race and the unique role it plays in national electoral politics.
(Bill Maxwell is a columnist and editorial writer for the St. Petersburg Times. E-mail bmaxwell(at)sptimes.com.)