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Does Obama’s Race Hurt Him?



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On the racial recriminations already being predicted if Senator Obama loses (see, e.g., the Randall Kennedy essay in The Washington Post over the weekend), let me state the obvious: While there’s no doubt that race will influence some voters, it would be a mistake to jump to the conclusion that it will be a net minus rather than a net plus for Senator Obama. Yes, some voters will not vote for him because of his race, but there’s more to the story than that.

For starters, it really cannot be seriously contended that Obama would have been nominated in the first place had he been white. A key part of his attraction, which is his charisma, is his race. Does anyone really believe that he would have attracted the same passionate support had he not been African American, or that any comparably qualified white state legislator would find himself the presidential nominee less than four years later? You don’t have to be Geraldine Ferraro, you don’t have to call this affirmative action, and at this point you don’t even have to oppose Senator Obama, to admit that this happens to be true.

Second, and for similar reasons, while there are those who will not vote for Obama in the general election because he is black, there are many who will be voting for him precisely for that reason. This includes, most obviously, many African Americans, who would otherwise vote for McCain or — probably more likely — simply stay home if the Democratic nominee had been a white guy with Senator Obama’s credentials and positions. And it includes, again, many non-black voters who are smitten by Obama’s race-driven charisma and especially the hope that he will, because of that, be a race-healer for the nation. It even includes, truth be told, those who fear that if he doesn’t win the threatened racial recriminations will indeed come to pass; more positively, those who simply think it would be a good thing for race relations if a black man were elected president; and, more negatively again, those who hope that, with a black president, there will be less black complaining. For purposes of this posting, I’m not endorsing or condemning any of these motives (except voting against Obama out of racial prejudice, which of course I do condemn); I just think it’s hard to deny that they are out there.

Look at it this way:  If Senator Obama magically became white, is it at all clear that at this point it would improve his electoral prospects? And if, at the same time, Senator McCain magically became black, does anyone think that the white Obama would then have a prayer of winning? Randall Kennedy thinks so; that’s not at all clear to me. Colin Powell beats John Kerry (minus 20 years political experience and a war record) any day.

Finally, let’s keep things in perspective:  Race may be a factor for some voters, but for most it’s not — it’s liberal versus conservative, D versus R, not B versus W.



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