Ginger Thompson, Jeff Zeleny, and Kitty Bennett write today about Obama and his staff's internal
wrangling over the place of race in the campaign
. They show Obama's
evolving sense of what it means to be a "post-racial" candidate.
Thompson begins with an early strategy meeting, in which Obama lays out
his philosophy in five words:
Halfway into the session, Broderick Johnson, a Washington
lawyer and informal adviser to Mr. Obama, spoke up. "What about race?"
Mr. Obama's dismissal was swift and unequivocal.
He had been able to navigate racial politics in Illinois, Mr. Obama
told the group, and was confident he could do so across the nation. "I
believe America is ready," one aide recalled him saying.
The race issue got all of five minutes at that meeting, setting what
Mr. Obama and his advisers hoped would be the tone of a campaign they
were determined not to define by the color of his skin.
Obama has shown a desire to box away his experiences as a student
activist during the 80s. In his autobiography, he has been dismissive
of his days in the anti-apartheid, pro-multiculturalism,
pro-affirmative action battles at Occidental, Columbia, and Harvard. He
regards his experiences in Chicago's Southside, which he still cites as
the transformative period of his life, as certainly more authentic. Yet
his language--drawing freely from Gandhi and Chavez--suggests he has a
more conflicted relationship to his student activism years than he is
ready to admit.
Was he so eager to suppress the memory of that era's campus culture wars (over multicultural
curriculum, affirmative action, hate speech, etc.) that he embraced too
naive a view of how to articulate an approach to race in his campaign?
Staff divisions didn't help. Early on, high-ranking white advisors
deliberately steered him away from African American audiences.
Instead of following a plotted course, Mr. Obama's campaign
has zigged and zagged, reacting to outside forces and internal
differences between the predominantly white team of top advisers and
the mostly black tier of aides.
The dynamic began the first day of Mr. Obama's presidential bid, when
white advisers encouraged him to withdraw an invitation to his pastor,
whose Afro-centric sermons have been construed as antiwhite, to deliver
the invocation at the official campaign kickoff. Then, when his
candidacy was met by a wave of African-American suspicion, the
senator's black aides pulled in prominent black scholars, business
leaders and elected officials as advisers.
Aides to Mr. Obama, who asked not to be identified because the campaign
would not authorize them to speak to the press, said he stayed away
from a civil rights demonstration and did not publicize visits to black
churches when he was struggling to win over white voters in
Remember this Cornel West rant on the weekend Obama announced
his candidacy? Black aides struggled to rectify this mistake. Thompson
later describes how Obama took care of the snub of Reverend Jeremiah
Wright and the Covenant With Black America. (West is now prObama.)
(In an aside, Rev. Al Sharpton takes credit for Jena 6, not only
inviting comparison of himself to Martin Luther King Jr. and Obama to
LBJ, but entirely rewriting the history of the protest. It was actually
called by Color of
Change and organized by thousands of young activists working in an
entirely decentralized manner on the web and in the schools.)
Obama's black advisors pushed to make Michelle Obama central to the
"It took Barack a while to agree," said Charles J. Ogletree
Jr., a Harvard professor who is part of the black advisory group. "But
we told him she had to be the one to confront the myths and fears of
"Here was a black woman, a mother, who grew up poor, learned to sleep
without heat and rose above that to get an Ivy League education,"
Professor Ogletree added. "But she was also the kind of woman who would
take her shoes off because her feet hurt. She was real from the moment
she stepped on stage."
In other words, Obama's black advisors told him, forget the
"color-blind" pitch. Michelle embodied the idea that no one
could escape history, that a "post-racial" politics still needed to
account for racial solidarity and to directly address the desires and
needs of racially oppressed communities. She delivered big-time in
South Carolina, the turning point for Obama in the African American
But, in no small part because of their denial of the realities of race,
Obama and his campaign still had to play catch-up against the Clinton
campaign with Latino leaders and communities.
The campaign claims it has learned from California, and his Latino
field director says Obama will apply to Texas the same kind of
attention it has lavished on Iowa and South Carolina.
One quote should raise worries. Here's his top advisor, David Axelrod,
who seems to suggest that the campaign still views even African
Americans more as emergent--useful for votes and campaign
donations--than insurgent--needing to be considered carefully in agenda
"He believes you can have the support of the black
community, appealing to the pride they feel in his candidacy, and still
win support among whites," Mr. Axelrod said.
Do "post-racial politics" merely mean a new way of marginalizing a
racial justice agenda?
Jeff Chang is the author of Can
't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation and the
editor of Tot
al Chaos: The Art And Aesthetics of Hip-Hop. He blogs at: www.cantstopwontstop.com/