Monday, April 28, 2008

Climbing Mt. Race

I was struck by some discussion of Obama on TV last night (it was probably MSNBC). Obama's problem, it was suggested, was that he was becoming (through the Rev. Wright flap etc.) to be "identified with the black agenda," and that he was therefore increasingly "threatening" to white voters especially the "Reagan Democrat" working-class whites who are voting for Clinton by large margins. This is emerging as a potentially serious problem as some of these voters are openly telling pollsters that they won't vote for Obama if nominated (it is likely that there are more who think this way but are embarrassed to admit it publicly). There are at least two strategies available for the black politician who wants to climb the Everest of American politics, getting elected President. One is to be the "accidental black man," the charismatic and attractive candidate who just happens to be black. Obama has been perceived for much of the past year as the accidental black man, even as he tapped into a deep vein of longing among white voters for the opportunity to redeem themselves at long last by voting for a black candidate. The obvious benefit of the accidental black man strategy is that such a candidate is non-threatening to white people. The unfortunate corollary to this is that the non-accidental black man is (still) threatening. But the accidental black man strategy hasn't worked in any event. Obama got where he is by solidifying his base among African-American voters (black men support Obama by somewhere around 95 percent). The appeal of the accidental black man strategy is that we all, whites and blacks alike, can pat ourselves on the back and say, congratulations, we're all beyond that awful race stuff. But this is a celebration to which we are not entitled. No, a black candidate is still a black candidate, and has no chance of advancement if he is not, for starters, a champion of the "black agenda," whatever that is (I'm not clear on what that is, but I know that "agenda" is a somewhat loaded word that people use when they want their opponents to appear more sinister than they are, as in "the gun-control advocates' agenda"). So what's the other strategy for climbing Mt. Race? That is for a large enough portion of the white electorate to be brought around to the view that the interests of the black community are not antagonistic to their own. This does not involve black people somehow acting any differently than they do (being "less threatening"), but it does involve educating the larger community, Rev. King-style, about the legitimate needs and concerns of the black community. What I'm suggesting is that Obama's grand strategy for transcending race is premature. If a black candidate can get elected to the presidency today (and I don't know if it's possible or not), he ("she" might be a bit of a stretch) will have to do it by simultaneously offering a coherent program addressing the country's various needs and articulating a credible vision for advancing the interests of the African-American community.

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