Friday, November 30, 2007

Barack Obama and the Politics of Race

As a student of African-American politics, I long ago lost any excitement over Barack Obama's potential to mount a transracial presidential campaign. His speech to the Democratic National Convention was breathtaking in its firm enunciation of conservative racial priniciples. Obama's problem, unfortunatley, is that he's a Democrat. He'll appeal to the party's Ivy League and Hollywood elites, but his hammering on personal responsibility's not going down with the 'hood.

With that in mind, it's worth checking out
Juan Williams' New York Times analysis of Barack Obama's "astonishing" campaign:

BARACK OBAMA is running an astonishing campaign. Not only is he doing far better in the polls than any black presidential candidate in American history, but he has also raised more money than any of the candidates in either party except Hillary Clinton.

Most amazing, Mr. Obama has built his political base among white voters. He relies on unprecedented support among whites for a black candidate. Among black voters nationwide, he actually trails Hillary Clinton by nine percentage points, according to one recent poll.

At first glance, the black-white response to Mr. Obama appears to represent breathtaking progress toward the day when candidates and voters are able to get beyond race. But to say the least, it is very odd that black voters are split over Mr. Obama’s strong and realistic effort to reach where no black candidate has gone before. Their reaction looks less like post-racial political idealism than the latest in self-defeating black politics.

Mr. Obama’s success is creating anxiety, uncertainty and more than a little jealousy among older black politicians. Black political and community activists still rooted in the politics of the 1960s civil rights movement are suspicious about why so many white people find this black man so acceptable.

Much of this suspicion springs from Mr. Obama’s background. He was too young to march with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His mother is white and his father was a black Kenyan. Mr. Obama grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, then went on to the Ivy League, attending Columbia for college and Harvard for law school. He did not work his way up the political ladder through black politics, and in fact he lost a race for a Chicago Congressional seat to Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther.

In an interview with National Public Radio earlier this year, Mr. Obama acknowledged being out of step with the way most black politicians approach white America....

The alienation, anger and pessimism that mark speeches from major black American leaders are missing from Mr. Obama’s speeches. He talks about America as a “magical place” of diversity and immigration. He appeals to the King-like dream of getting past the racial divide to a place where the sons of slaves and the sons of slave owners can pick the best president without regard to skin color.

Mr. Obama’s biography and rhetoric have led to mean-spirited questions about whether he is “black enough,” whether he is “acting like he’s white,” as a South Carolina newspaper reported Jesse Jackson said of him. But the more serious question being asked about Mr. Obama by skeptical black voters is this: Whose values and priorities will he represent if he wins the White House?

As he claims to proudly represent a historically oppressed minority, Mr. Obama has to answer the question. Too many black politicians have hidden behind their skin color to avoid it.

Fifty percent of black Americans say Mr. Obama shares their values, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center. But that still leaves another half who dismiss him as having only “some” or “not much/not at all” in common with the values of black Americans.

There is a widening split over values inside black America. Sixty-one percent of black Americans, according to the Pew poll, believe that the values of middle-class and poor blacks are becoming “more different.” Inside black America, people with at least some college education are the most likely to see Mr. Obama as “sharing the black community’s values and interests a lot.” But only 41 percent of blacks with a high school education or less see Mr. Obama as part of the black community.

Overall, only 29 percent of people of all colors say Mr. Obama reflects black values. He is viewed as the epitome of what Senator Joe Biden artlessly called the “clean” and “articulate” part of black America — the rising number of black people who tell pollsters they find themselves in sync with most white Americans on values and priorities.

And in a nation where a third of the population is now made up of people of color, Mr. Obama is in the vanguard of a new brand of multi-racial politics. He is asking voters to move with him beyond race and beyond the civil rights movement to a politics of shared values. If black and white voters alike react to Mr. Obama’s values, then he will really have taken the nation into post-racial politics.

Whether he and America will get there is still an open question.
Williams needs to keep in mind that Obama's main hurdle is winning the primary. Primary voters are more ideological than those in the general election. Not only that, the Democratic Party that is emerging for the post-Bush age is moving further toward the ideological sidelines occupied by an antiwar, multiculturalist, race-preferences, open-borders constituency that would staunchly reject a political agenda of accomodation with the "white power, war-mongering" political elite.

This is
the same constituency that worked to defeat moderate Senator Joseph Lieberman in his primary contest against antiwar novice Ned Lamont. The party's multicultural wing dominates the presidential nomination process.

The Democratic Party's reaction to the Bush administration's veto of
SCHIP's expansion into a middle-class children's health entitlement reveals the broad basis of the Democratic Party's entitlement culture, which includes a huge constituency of aggrieved minority voters. (See Thomas Edsall's, Chain Reaction The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics, for an analysis of the Democratic high-spending, race-preferences constituency.)

I don't think Barack Obama's going to make inroads with this block of voters. He should switch parties, firm up his position on Iraq and the war on terror, and mount a comeback in the 2012 primaries, calling for a new post-racial politics of achievement, inclusion, responsibility, and uplift.