One of the more “noble” reasons why millions of Americans will vote for Barack Obama tomorrow are that his election will, they believe, show that the United States has finally put its racist past behind it. More specifically — at the micro level as opposed to the macro level — many believe that an Obama victory will serve as an example to young black men from troubled backgrounds who might otherwise do badly at school and drift into crime, incapable of holding down a job or being a responsible parent.
The argument that electing Obama will somehow absolve America of its racial sins is certainly compelling, especially for voters who haven’t made a decision based on issues such as the economy or Iraq. But it would be more persuasive were it not for the irony that Obama finds himself within touching distance of the Oval Office not by virtue of his achievements or his ideas, but in no small part because of the color of his skin.
The Obama campaign and its media cheerleaders have done a fine job of rendering discussion of his race taboo: while supporters of Hillary Clinton, notably Geraldine Ferraro raised the issue during the primary campaign, it hasn’t become a factor in the general election battle — aside, that is, from Obama’s repeated and cynical attempts to pre-emptively raise the specter of racism on the part of the McCain campaign. But Ferraro was right when she said in March that “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position.” There’s absolutely nothing in Obama’s resume to recommend him as a presidential candidate: no executive experience (unless you count giving away $100 million to radical groups when he ran the Annenberg Challenge with Bill Ayers); no legislative record to speak of; no achievements beyond his academic success; little experience of anything, in fact, other than college life and corrupt Chicago politics.
Obama is certainly charismatic, a good speaker (when he’s in front of his teleprompter) and a good campaigner. And in modern politics, where image counts for so much, such qualities can help an otherwise unremarkable candidate to punch above his weight. But John Edwards also had these qualities, and he disappeared almost without trace in the primary campaign, despite being a more prominent figure in the Democratic party than Obama on account of having been John Kerry’s running mate in 2004, and despite having served in the Senate for twice as long as Obama. By any calculation Edwards was the more plausible candidate — but, just as the only substantive difference between Obama and Hillary Clinton was gender, the only substantive difference between Obama and Edwards was skin color.
Sure enough, black support was a key factor in Obama’s victory over Clinton. It won’t be a significant factor tomorrow, because black voters have overwhelmingly supported the Democratic candidate in the past several elections. And there is of course nothing wrong with blacks voting for Obama on the basis of his color, any more than it was wrong for Catholics to vote for JFK or Mormons to support Mitt Romney in the Republican primaries. It’s perfectly understandable that, in the absence of significant disagreements over policy, a person should choose to vote for candidate from their own ethnic, racial or religious group. In the general election, however, the number of white people who, caught up in the idea of Obama as some kind of transformational figure, will vote for him solely on the basis of his color is likely to have a significant bearing on the result, and so it’s worth looking at the merits of casting such a vote.