2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
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Can Obama avoid being the 'black candidate'?


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2/5/08 Fin. Times Asia 7


The images that emerged in the days and weeks after Hurricane Katrina brought death and destruction to New Orleans represented - to many Americans - a tragic but undeniable truth about their nation's legacy of racial injustice.

The searing pictures of mostly black men, women and children abandoned in the crumbling and filthy Superdome without food or water, or waiting for rescue on the rooftops of their flooded homes, evoked memories of a not too distant past, when African-Americans faced beatings and police dogs in their struggle for equal rights.

But for a young black senator named Barack Obama, Katrina told a different story: one not about race but about the plight of the poor.

The Bush administration's ineptitude in handling the crisis, he declared on the Senate floor in 2005, was "colour blind". It was not racism, Mr Obama said, but bad assumptions - that Americans could all load up their sports utility vehicles with Dollars 100 of petrol and a credit card and find their way to safety - that were to blame.

The statement, which drew distinctions between race and class that are not often articulated in American politics - serves as a poignant example of why Mr Obama today is considered the first viable black candidate for president. While other politicians - both black and white - saw Katrina as an example of the nation's indifference to poor blacks, he offered another point of view: one that could allow white America to examine its responsibility for the tragedy without feeling the stinging accusation of racism, a rebuke that often creates a divide that is impossible to bridge.

For some supporters, Mr Obama's campaign momentum proves America has moved beyond decades of corrosive racial politics. But there are fears that his candidacy will succumb to the country's obsession with race: relegating the Illinois senator to the role of "black candidate" that was unsuccessfully played by Jesse Jackson, the civil rights leader, two decades ago.

Views on race have evolved in the last 20 years. According to a Gallup poll, only 77 per cent of Americans in 1983 said they would vote for a black person for president, compared with 93 per cent who said they would at the end of last year. Just 86 per cent said they would vote for a woman.

But it is far from clear that American attitudes about race have undergone a sufficient reversal since Mr Jackson's campaigns in the 1980s. Instead, it is Mr Obama's relentless quest to extricate race from his bid for the White House that may have raised his chances.

Indeed, to compare Mr Obama's candidacy with Mr Jackson's ignores an idealism embodied by Mr Obama that race, in the words of the scholar Shelby Steele, is but a negligible human difference, while Mr Jackson placed themes of racial equality at the centre of his campaign. Mr Steele argues that the notion that a black candidate can be identified outside the confines of race is a radical departure from the politics of a generation of African-American leaders that emerged from the civil rights era of the 1960s. But he says Americans of all races have grown exhausted with this group, men such as Mr Jackson and Al Sharpton.

On the campaign trail, the difference is obvious. In the 1980s one of Mr Jackson's slogans was "Our time has come!" Mr Obama, after his Iowa victory, proclaimed: "We are one people and our time for change has come."

Mr Obama rarely broaches the topic of race. He reminds voters subtly that he is biracial (his mother was white and his father Kenyan) as part of a joke in his stump speech. In it, he recounts his embarrassment at learning he was distantly related to vice-president Dick Cheney, whom he wryly calls his "cousin".

Mr Obama has never delivered a speech that confronts his racial identity directly in the way John F. Kennedy spoke about his Roman Catholic faith or, more recently, Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, sought to reassure prospective voters about his Mormon beliefs: aspects of both men's identities that set them apart from the white protestants who have held office.

Mr Obama's admirers see no need for such a declaration. They often say Mr Obama "transcends" race, perhaps a way of saying that he is a black politician who does not dwell on it.

Cornel West, the prominent Princeton scholar who is African-American and supports Mr Obama, says the lawmaker has "worked through" race in the tradition of Martin Luther King, the slain civil rights leader. It is not the kind of transcendence, the professor says, that ought to be confused with "conservative or even neo-liberal colour blindness" that ignores and denies the issue of race. When race is pertinent, Mr West says, Mr Obama addresses it.

But analysts speculate that, despite Mr Obama's efforts to keep the issue at bay, his racial identity could play a determining factor in today's Super Tuesdayprimaries. According to a Field poll late last month, Mr Obama's rival, Hillary Clinton, is preferred by 60 per cent of California's likely Latino voters, a crucial voting bloc that could determine the outcome of the contest in the delegate-rich state.

A Clinton campaign pollster kicked up a storm of protest when he suggested that the former first lady's advantage was based on Hispanic voters not showing a lot of "willingness or affinity" for black candidates, a charge Mr Obama has rejected. Some pundits have already pointed to what they see as an erosion of support for Mr Obama among whites after he won only one-quarter of the white vote in South Carolina. Others, including Mr West, say the results showed strong support among whites given that it was a three-person race, in a state that once embraced segregation.

In order for Mr Obama to win California and largely white states such as Missouri, he will have to continue to be seen by voters as a "transcendent" candidate. The task has been made more difficult, some analysts say, by the Clintons and their surrogates who have - deliberately or not - injected the issue of race into the election.

The fact that Mr Obama is African-American has, in some ways, posed a challenge for the former first lady and her husband, who may otherwise have received strong support from black voters. Bill Clinton, who always seemed at home standing in the pulpit of black churches, was dubbed the "first black president" by the writer Toni Morrison (who now supports Mr Obama) and opened an office in the largely black New York neighbourhood of Harlem after leaving the White House.

But recent statements by members of the Clinton camp have troubled longtime supporters who worried that that the couple were seeking to erode support for Mr Obama among white voters, even if it meant alienating black voters. Mrs Clinton's remark that it "took a president" to get civil rights legislation passed in 1964 was interpreted by critics as an attempt to elevate the role of Lyndon Johnson over that of King in the fight for racial equality. After the fiercely fought primary in South Carolina, Mr Clinton noted that Mr Jackson had won the state twice, an insinuation that a black candidate would inevitably win a "black" state like South Carolina, but not the rest of the US.

"I think they're trying to limit his appeal down the line," says Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. "Perhaps their idea is that white voters in Democratic primaries are less likely to support him if he's the 'black Democrat'. But I think that's a misreading of white Democrats, a lot of whom would really like Obama. It came across as trashing Obama and seemed way beyond the bounds of legitimate political conflict."

Linda Schlesener, a white woman in her sixties who was attending a rally for Mr Obama in Kansas City last week, says she was "very disappointed" by Mr Clinton's remarks. "It was awful to see him act that way," she says. "I don't want racial bigots. We're not from Louisiana . . . We're in Kansas and I don't treat anyone that way."

Mr West at Princeton says Mr Clinton may not have sought to use race when, for example, he called Mr Obama a "kid", but the remarks were tinged with a certain "condescension and paternalism". He adds: "But the good thing is that Obama refuses to be ghetto-ised and that is a tribute to him and a tribute to the American people - and that is a beautiful development."

Others say Mr Obama's race makes it difficult for Mrs Clinton or her husband to criticise her rival without making it appear racially insensitive.

Whatever the Clintons may have intended by the remarks, it has long become a fact of political life in the US that statements about race will be examined for indications that they are intended to send a signal. Back in 1988, for instance, an advertisement on behalf of George H.W. Bush that attacked Democrat Michael Dukakis by using the image of Willie Horton, an African-American who had been convicted of murder, was condemned for having racist overtones.

Mr Obama's candidacy has done more than open a debate within the white community. It has also exposed generational fault lines in African-American politics.

In Atlanta, one of the seats of African-American power, civil rights leaders such as Andrew Young and John Lewis, who both marched with King, have endorsed Mrs Clinton. Charlie Rangel, who has served Harlem in congress for nearly 40 years, also actively supports her.

But Cory Booker, the youthful and charismatic black mayor of Newark, New Jersey, is backing Mr Obama, as is Shirley Franklin, Atlanta's African-American mayor. "What I like about Obama is that he is reaching - he is energising - a population that is not typically energised," she says.

It is unclear whether this signals a desire of younger black leaders to move away from the brand of politics of their elders. Mr West says the black political establishment has shown before its reluctance to engage in a paradigm shift, when leaders chose to support Walter Mondale as Democratic candidate over Mr Jackson.

"I find it understandable but unjustifiable," he says. "For them, it requires a certain kind of stepping into the unfamiliar. Two, it means giving up their power in the establishment. For them, to be part of the Clinton machine is to have power in the party." Mr Obama, he says, represents a challenge to that power.

Artur Davis, a congressman from Alabama who is black and first met Mr Obama when they attended Harvard Law School, says he finds it "borderline offensive" when black establishment figures in the south tell supporters not to vote for Mr Obama because, they maintain, he cannot win.

"If that were advanced by any Caucasian, it would be denounced as the most vile form of racism," Mr Davis says. "I think some of it is rooted in a sense of doubt, a refusal to change their perception of where the country is today."

But some black leaders who have supported Mrs Clinton, such as Joe Reed, the chairman of the Alabama Democratic Conference, say they are just being pragmatic. "Obama has got all the qualifications, but he ain't going to be nominated," he told the Washington Post in December.

The debate in the black community about how far America has come in reconciling its brutal past, and how to move forward, was on clear display at a rally last month in Columbia, South Carolina, that was held to commemorate King. The racially mixed, but mostly black, crowd did not seem to respond to an angry speech by Lonnie Randolph, the head of the South Carolina chapter of the NAACP, the civil rights group, who railed against the injustices blacks still face in the south.

It was Mr Obama, who was forced to give his speech before a waving confederate flag - a symbol of slavery and racism that still flies on the grounds of the statehouse - who prompted cheers. The senator talked about hope and the possibility of change, constant themes of his campaign. But he never mentioned the flag.


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