Thursday, September 11, 2008

Why McCain and Obama Won’t Talk about Race, but Should

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama made one speech in March to damp down
the furor over his relationship with his controversial former pastor Jeremiah Wright. He made another speech at the NAACP convention in July. Other than those two speeches he has not uttered another word about racial issues since. Republican rival John McCain spoke at the same NAACP convention. Shortly after that, he issued a terse statement backing the Ward Connerly concocted anti-affirmative action initiative on the November ballot in Arizona and two other states. Other than that he has not uttered a single word about racial issues since. The audience for McCain and Obama’s speeches at the NAACP convention were mostly blacks. That reinforced the notion that racial issues are by, and for, blacks, with no broad policy implications for all Americans as issues such as health care, jobs and the economy, terrorism and Iraq.

About the only talk about race during the campaign has been the interminable Hydra headed question of: Can Obama make history by being the first African American president? And if he doesn’t will race sink him? That’s hardly the candid, free wheeling, in-depth talk about the problems that impact the lives of millions of black, Latino Asian, and American Indian voters. Minority voters make up about one quarter of American voters and they deserve to hear what the candidates have to say about racial matters, and more importantly what their administration plans to do about them.
Obama and McCain’s racial blind spot has been ritual blindness in all candidates in recent America presidential races. Racial issues have seeped into presidential debates only when they ignite public anger and division. In a 1988 debate, Bush Sr. hammered Democratic contender Michael Dukakis as being a card carrying ACLU’er, a milksop on crime, and tossed in the Willie Horton hit to drive home the point. In one of their debates in 2000, Bush and Democratic challenger, Al Gore clashed over affirmative action.

Race has been a taboo subject for presidents and their challengers on the campaign trail for the past two decades for a simple reason. No president or presidential challenger, especially a Democratic challenger, will risk being tarred as pandering to minorities for the mere mention of racial problems. In stark contrast, Obama, let alone McCain, would never worry about being accused of pandering to Christian Evangelicals by talking incessantly about gay marriage and abortion.
The double standard on race is troublesome to Team Obama. The team knows that race is a minefield that can blow up at any time and the explosion can fatally harm their candidate. Even something seemingly incidental such as the media and public’s outlandish gossipy obsession with vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin poses a risk. In this case, her presence alone in the race has hurt. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll days after her entrance found that McCain was now beating oout Obama among white women. The month before Palin came along he was tied with him among the women.

But polls, white voter wariness over race, and Obama and McCain’s nervous eye on them can’t magically make racial issues disappear. In each of it’s annual State of Black America reports the past decade the National Urban League found that blacks are less likely to own their own homes, die earlier, are far more likely to be jailed disproportionately and receive longer sentences, receive less or poorer quality health care and earn far less than whites. They attend failing public schools, and are more likely the victims of racially motivated hate crimes than any other group.
The report also found rampant discrimination and gaping economic disparities between Latinos and whites. In the past decade, the income, and education performance gaps between blacks and Latinos and whites have only marginally closed, or actually widened. Discrimination remains the major cause of the disparities.

Shunting race to the back burner of presidential campaigns invariably means that presidents shunt them to the backburner of their legislative agenda. Yet, presidents have not been able to tap dance around racial problems. Reagan's administration was embroiled in affirmative action battles. Bush Sr.'s administration was tormented by urban riots following the beating of black motorist Rodney King. Clinton's administration was saddled with conflicts over affirmative action, police violence and racial profiling. W. Bush's administration has been confronted by the HIV/AIDS pandemic, voting rights, reparations, and affirmative action battles, gang violence, and failing inner city public schools. By ignoring, or downplaying these issues until they burst into flashpoints of national debate and conflict, presidents have been ill prepared to craft meaningful legislation and programs to deal with them.
In the closing weeks of the campaign McCain and Obama will repeatedly tell how their administration will deal with problems from the Iraq War to the economy. They should also tell how their administration will deal with the crisis problems that slam minorities and the poor. One or the other will have to confront those problems in the White House.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).

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