Today Hillary Clinton won Puerto Rico, but the decision yesterday by the DNC assures that barring an unforeseen disaster, Barack Obama will be the nominee. Also yesterday, Barack Obama left his church, Trinty, in Chicago. He did so, he says, in part to protect the church, though everyone knows that the firey content of that, like many black churches, gives opponents fodder for attack. People who don’t understand the importance of race in America want a black man who is black in skin color only, but culturally seems white. The reality of our society, however, is that it’s almost impossible for that to happen. This means racism will play a real role in the 2008 election.
John McCain is a very weak candidate. He has been committing gaffe after gaffe on his so-called signature issues: Iraq and foreign policy. He messed up the number of soldiers in Iraq, mixed up Shi’ite and Sunni, didn’t know that Ahmadinejad is not the most powerful man in Iran (it’s Supreme Leader Khamanei), didn’t realize that al qaeda is enemies with Hezbollah and Iran, and made the absurd comment that if we left Iraq, al qaeda would take over. Given a lot of Republicans are lukewarm to McCain anyway, that, combined with the strong Obama organizational efforts, suggest a huge win for the Democrats in November.
However, I suspect that McCain may pull out a squeaker. Obama has one weakness that, even in 21st century America, trumps all his strengths: he is black. Racism in the US isn’t as overt as in the past. Whites, not truly understanding the impact of slavery and segregation on the structure of society, often whine about affirmative action and make outlandish comparisons between an emphasis on building a sense of African American identity by saying things like “what if they were talking about pride in being white” or something like that. Those with the most power – white males like myself – are too often oblivious to the privileges we have because of our status in this society.
So to be blunt: I expect this to be an ugly campaign, one where the attacks on Obama so far – mostly attempts at guilt by association – pale in comparison of what’s to come. It will be intended to play overtly to the racist aspect of American society, though the McCain campaign will be careful not to be directly involved and will in fact self-righteously criticize such tactics.
There will be two types of appeal to racism. One will simply be to try to paint Obama as somehow strange. Strange name. Look at his former church. Weird background. Lived awhile in Indonesia…subtext: is he really one of us? The Clinton campaign used this in a very subtle way, and showed the power of that approach in places like Kentucky and West Virginia. And while most of the country doesn’t have the continuing overt racism of that region or the deep south, there is enough to get people to even secretly vote for the old white guy. McCain may not be great, but we can imagine him at the dinner table.
There will also be the ‘swiftboating’ effort. Stark attacks, made if not on him then on close associates or more likely his wife. These will be meant to appeal to the hidden racist in most people, even those who try to deny any sort of racial bias, something to say “this guy really can’t be trusted to run the country.” A statement, a letter to a friend, some kind of video, who knows. The message will be that Obama is culturally strange, has hung around with strange people, have close associates who say things that sound un-American and certainly politically incorrect for a Presidential candidate. Real message: black folk are different, we can’t give them real power.
All of this will seem to be directed at Barack Obama, but make no mistake: Any strong African American contender would be subject to this, because the nature of our society means that there is still such a divide between the races that most of the time you’ll be able to find associations, statements and actions that seem to those who don’t understand the racial divisions – who would expect a black church to be just like the white Methodist church down the street, maybe with better singers – to be simply unacceptable for a President.
If anyone can overcome this, it’s Obama. He’s charismatic, intelligent, tough, and able to connect. He might just overcome the inevitable onslaught of subtle and not so subtle appeals to racism that the GOP is bound to throw out there. You’ve been warned. Get ready for it. This is a test of how far we’ve come as a society. If Obama loses because of such attacks and attitudes, this shows that the racial divide is extremely powerful, especially given how on paper Obama should be having an easy coast to victory. If Obama wins or at least keeps it very close, it will be symbolic of a country overcoming its racial divisions and moving forward. This is not to say anyone who votes against him is a racist; many people would never vote for him because they are conservative and Obama is clearly on the left. I’m talking about the impact overall, measured in how many voters who would have voted for a white Democrat this year decide to vote McCain because of hidden racism. In anyevent, whatever the outcome, 2008 will say something about what kind of nation we’ve become.