Obama and the Post-Racial Illusion
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.
Despite grand claims to the contrary, the argument that Obama will be a role model for young black men is unconvincing. They already have plenty of role models in local and national politics, as well as in business, sport and the arts. The reason why so many young black men underachieve in school, and become mired in crime and fecklessness, is not a lack of role models, but a combination of poverty, failed education policies and family breakdown -- problems which decades of rule over America's big cities by Obama's party have done nothing to alleviate.
If voters genuinely believe that Obama would improve the lot of the black underclass, that's a fair reason to vote for him. However, there's no evidence that an Obama administration would do anything other than persist with the failed policies that have left urban black communities in their current parlous state. On the contrary, Obama, steeped in the victimology of his Marxist mentors, is likely to govern well to the left of any previous Democratic administration, and any "inspirational" effect on young black men will be more than offset by his policies. (You don't have to take my word on the above: for an eloquent and persuasive critique of Obama and the Democrats from a black perspective watch this video by a black conservative Christian.)
The election of the president of the United States should not, in any case, be treated as an exercise in social engineering, or as some vast affirmative action program. Teaching right from wrong, and setting good examples, are the jobs of parents and teachers, not voters. If Obama triumphs it could actually be counterproductive for the future of race relations: the tactic of denouncing any criticism of Obama as racist, skilfully employed by the Obama campaign and its friends in the media, will have surely reinforced the impression among many blacks that any failure or rejection can be addressed by loudly voicing the same complaint.
As for the notion that an Obama presidency would forever absolve America of past racial sins -- well, what happens in four years if Obama isn't re-elected? What if, because of failed or unpopular policies, the public turns against Obama? If his presidency is anything less than the most successful and admired in U.S. history, will it mean that America's triumph over its racist instincts was only temporary?
But let's say Obama's first term is a success, and he's re-elected. What then happens in 2016 if another black candidate runs, but loses? What will be the guidelines for navigating these uncharted waters of identity politics? How long is the Obama Redemption good for? Will Americans have to elect, say, a black candidate every 12 years, or every 20 years, to prevent accusations of racism resurfacing? Or, if the country fails to elect a second black president for a few decades, will everyone accept that it can't be down to racism, because Americans put all that behind them back in 2008? And what about Hispanics -- shouldn't it be their turn next, lest they feel black America's gain has been their loss? Should Bill Richardson be elected in an effort to put an end to gang crime in L.A.?
The sad fact is that an Obama victory will not have the hoped-for effect on race relations for the simple reason that Obama is running as a Democrat. Years ago, elements within the Democratic party -- notably corrupt black politicians and their white "community organizer" allies -- developed the strategy of exploiting the grievances of black Americans, both real and imagined, in order to demonize their Republican opponents and win votes. By continuing to stoke the fires of resentment they've ensured that it's all but impossible to have a sensible discussion about race in the United States, and an Obama victory will only convince the leftists who are taking control of the Democratic party, and the Al Sharptons and the Reverend Wrights, of the effectiveness of their insidious tactics.
The selection of a black Republican presidential nominee should, in theory, be far more persuasive in terms of advancing the cause of black Americans and laying the ghosts of the past. The candidate would be seen to have won the nomination based on his ability, and not because of identity politics; moreover, he or she would be seen as having triumphed against the perceived racism in the Republican party. But, while so many black Democrats are defined by their race, black Republicans are viewed as Republicans first, and blacks second: Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, the first and second black Secretaries of State, have been vilified as sell-outs to their race as much as they've been hailed as trailblazers for it -- although Powell's reputation in the eyes of both a majority of blacks and the media has been rehabilitated somewhat by his endorsement of Obama.
Obama's color should not count against him tomorrow; but neither should it give him an advantage. The impacts on black Americans of the election of a black president will be more profound, and more beneficial, if they are the side-effects of electing that person based on their ability, their achievements and their ideas, and not misguided motives for choosing the most powerful elected official in the world.