February 21, 2008

Primary school: a post-racist poster child...

[img id="80335" align="alignleft"] This week, instead of working on my B.A. thesis, I’ve been reading The Race Card by Stanford law professor Richard Thompson Ford. In clear, fierce prose, Ford argues that we’re living in a post-racist society where racial and identity politics have entered a gray area, such that just about anyone, minority or otherwise, can use the shadow of traditional racism for a personal or political edge. In American politics, playing the race card often runs counter to real change in racial legislation.

But despite all the easy advantages that could be gained by playing the race card, Obama has managed to dominate the recent primaries in just about every group—black and white, rich and poor, young and old—all while avoiding using race as a campaign crutch. The significance of Obama’s refusal to play the race card cannot be underestimated both for its impact on American racial politics and for what it says about the sincerity behind Obama’s rhetoric.

Obama has drawn criticism from both ends of the spectrum. On the one hand, some have argued that Obama evades particularly harsh criticism because of his race, and that he has exploited racial politics when it has served him politically. On the other, it’s been said that he has been too tentative, unwilling to espouse the kind of black pride that instilled purpose in the civil rights movement in the first place.

Based on Obama’s overwhelming support among both blacks and whites in recent weeks, neither of these criticisms seems to have much merit. What’s overlooked, however, is that Obama’s ability to overcome these concerns is a titanic accomplishment for the history of American racial politics. If 40 years ago you had told any American that a black man would be the presidential frontrunner in 2008, it would have seemed absurd that that candidate’s race was not central to his campaign. Many would not even believe that such a feat alone would ever be possible.

In the 1980s, a popular comedy routine by Eddie Murphy imagined a black president constantly dodging bullets while making an otherwise ordinary speech. Yet, according to a recent Gallup poll, 94 percent of Americans said they’d be willing to vote for a black president, a number unimaginable in the ’60s. The balance of power in American identity politics has shifted, and old-school racism is no longer the primary concern in racial politics. Obama has tapped into that modern sensibility unlike any other politician.

In fact, Obama’s race has been used more by his opponents than by himself. After he dominated the South Carolina primary, the Clintons swore off the black vote once and for all. Bill Clinton drew comparisons to Jesse Jackson, and smugly dismissed Obama’s long term chances. Never mind that Hillary Clinton dominated the black vote in the polls less than one year ago, and that Bill was dubbed “the first black president” by Toni Morrison (now an Obama supporter). The almost unstoppable momentum that Obama has developed since the Clintons’ dismissal has shown that that tactic clearly didn’t work, and made the Clintons seem as dated as the Bradley effect.

The ultimate ideal of a post-racist nation is to produce a colorblind society—applicable to red-and-blue America as well as black-and-white America. While Obama has not actually created such a society, only called for one, his insistence on doing so is itself a radical departure from everything we’ve seen in the last 40 years of American politics. If a candidate’s campaign is an indication of how he’ll run the country, Obama’s outright refusal to play the race card, a tool he could so easily use for immense gain, is enough to show us that this is no ordinary candidate.

Rather than promoting misguided idealism, Obama is actually promoting a much more old-time value: that real change will be accomplished through hard work and gumption, not by blaming others for your individual shortcomings.From his campaign tactics to his policies to his interaction with other candidates, Obama is the first post-racism presidential candidate this country has ever had. This gives him the chance not just to be the first black president, but to be the president that ends the “Culture Wars” that have been tearing this country apart for half a century.

Ethan Stanislawski is a fourth-year in the College majoring in HIPS. His column appears on alternate Fridays.