Thursday, January 03, 2008

A President Obama No Proof that America has Finally Kicked Its Racial Syndrome
Earl Ofari Hutchinson

A win or a big showing by Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama in Iowa will do two things. It will prove that a significant number of white voters will vote for a black presidential candidate. It won’t prove that America has finally kicked its racial syndrome. From the moment that Obama stood on the steps of the Illinois state capitol building in Springfield, Illinois last February and announced the launch of his dream presidential campaign to change America, the political deck seemed hopelessly stacked against him turning himself into a serious contender for the White House. The initial knock against him was that he was too new, inexperienced, and had a wafer thin legislative record in the Senate, and was saddled with a name that when twisted, mangled, or deliberately distorted sounded suspiciously like Osama.

But by far, the biggest hole card against him in the political deck was race. Put bluntly Obama is an African-American, and the conventional thinking and reality is that white Americans might publicly swear that color doesn’t matter to them when it comes to voting for a candidate, but then suddenly develop an acute case of voting booth conversion on Election Day. That meant that once inside the cozy and very private confines of the voting booth they punch the ticket for a white candidate in a head to head contest with a black candidate. The campaign trail is strewn with the wreckage of the campaigns of black candidates that held leads, in some instances substantial leads, over white opponents, and then went down to flaming defeat on Election Day.

The two tips that Obama could escape their fate was the victory of Deval Patrick who won the Massachusett’s governor’s seat in 2006. He had even less political experience than Obama, had less money, and was up against a seasoned office holder. He won anyway, and he won with white votes.

The even bigger tip that things might be different with Obama is Obama himself. He plays hard on his multi-racial upbringing and heritage, can raise bushels of campaign cash, is a centrist politician that gets high marks as a consensus builder during his stint in the Illinois state legislature, and is not typed as a race card player ala Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

In other words, he is an American exception, a black man who is, savvy, telegenic, moderate, and poses no racial threat. This quirky, even schizoid, American exceptionalism that plays well for Obama has been time tested in sports, entertainment, and in the business and the professional worlds for decades. That is the willingness of many whites to view some blacks through color neutral lens, and elevate them to a perch beyond race. In the crudest way, it’s expressed with the always offensive crack to some highly regarded black professionals, businesspersons, sports and entertainers that they are different, and not like the others. But generally, it’s simply to cheer the few exceptions for their talent and ability (as even if that’s the exception) and keep praising them as long as they make no personal and legal missteps.

The beyond color pass isn’t granted to some blacks solely out of enlightenment or altruism. There’s a dividend. It permits many whites feel goodism, and to back pat themselves for being color blind and that shows how far America has come in dumping the ugly burden of racial bigotry. That notion drove much of the decade long contentious debate over affirmative action. Affirmative action opponents railed that minorities had broke down the racial barriers, and individual talent and ability were the only thing that counted in society. Race simply violated the precepts of a color blind society. The Obamas of America seemed to more than bear that out.

Even if the now thinkable happens and Obama does wrest the Democratic presidential nomination, and even beyond that the White House, there are other sobering historic examples from the long rule of England’s Queen Victoria to the time in office of Pakistan’s tragically martyred former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto that proves that an Obama can get high marks, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that racial hostility and victimization has vanished. Victoria’s rule did not change gender relations in Victorian England. It was still a rigidly, class, and male dominated, patriarchal society. Bhutto in power didn’t change gender relations in Pakistan either. It is still a rigidly Islamic fundamentalist, caste, and male dominated, patriarchal society.

An Obama presidency would be a racial step forward in the sense that it shows that enough whites can and will look past race to make a black, especially an exceptional black, their leader. It would not show that they are willing to do the same for the millions of blacks that cram America’s jails and prisons, suffer housing and job discrimination, are trapped in failing public schools in America’s poor, crime ridden inner cities.

Their plight and how they are viewed and treated will remain the same after Obama takes office as it did before. A President Obama won’t change that.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February, 2007).