A recent Associated Press story cites several prominent black conservatives as being “conflicted” about voting for Barack Obama for president. While each of the conservatives acknowledges ideological differences with Obama, the prospect of a black president makes it, in the words of radio-talk-show host Armstrong Williams, “hard to vote against [Obama] in November.” The article quotes only one person, however, who will actually support Obama — the self-described moderate John McWhorter. The rest of the interviewees (with the exception of Michael Steele, who says he’ll do everything in his power to defeat Obama) are undecided, expressing sentiments similar to Williams: “I can honestly say that I have no idea who I am going to pull that lever for in November. And to me, that’s incredible.”
Incredible indeed. For even if one acknowledges that in this historic election it’s perfectly understandable that racial pride may have a profound influence, the fact that any conservative, regardless of ancestry, would vote for Obama demonstrates an impressive tolerance for risk.
The question for many conflicted black conservatives is whether the benefits of having a black president outweigh the risks of having a liberal one.
For black conservatives, the potential benefits of having a black president are perhaps best summarized by McWhorter, who has written extensively and eloquently on issues pertaining to race in America: “I want him to get in because, in a way, it will put me out of a job.” Actor Joseph C. Phillips adds, “I am wondering if this is the time when we get over the hump, where an Obama victory will finally, at long last, move us beyond some of the old conversations about race.”
This hope is shared by many whites as well, liberal and conservative (let’s face it — the cohort of black conservatives thinking about voting for Obama isn’t likely to tip the election). The premise underlying it is that a black president may be more effective in using the bully pulpit to address certain issues. Just as a Democrat Clinton could sign welfare-reform legislation, and foreign-policy hawk Nixon could go to China, a black president may be able to touch what are third rails for a white president. A glimpse of that possibility was on display on Father’s Day, when Obama addressed (albeit rather tepidly) the issue of absent black fathers.
The problem is that despite the importance of the bully pulpit, there’s little in Obama’s record beyond hopeful rhetoric to indicate that his presidency would change the racial conversation appreciably, let alone move the country past race. On the contrary, nearly everything in his record demonstrates that Obama is a doctrinaire racial bean counter who’s spent more than two decades marinating in Jeremiah Wright’s black-liberation theology. He’s a staunch supporter of racial preferences in employment, contracting, and school admissions. He worked to defeat the anti-affirmative action Michigan Civil Rights Initiative. Obama even maintains that last summer’s Supreme Court decisions outlawing racial discrimination in public-school assignments are wrong.
Even if the simple fact of having a black president has some marginal salutary effect on the nation’s racial dynamics, the question for ambivalent black conservatives remains whether the benefits associated with this black presidential candidate outweigh the manifold risks of his policies.
As president, backed by strong Democratic majorities in Congress, Obama, the most liberal member of the Senate, would appoint as many as four Supreme Court justices in the mold of Stephen Breyer; withdraw from Iraq on the precipice of victory; talk without precondition to leaders of state sponsors of terror; return to a pre-9/11, law-enforcement model of fighting terrorism; expand payroll taxes; increase capital gains taxes; increase estate taxes and permit the Bush tax cuts to expire; allow illegal immigrants to participate in the Social Security system; maintain current bans on oil- and natural gas-drilling; fund abortions with taxpayer dollars; eliminate funding for missile defense; place restrictions on gun ownership; erect impediments to the monitoring of terrorist communications; enact big-government health care; maintain the governmental educational monopoly; slow the development of future weapons systems; and smother private enterprise with a blizzard of regulations. He might also nag us about what to eat and drive and ask the U.N. to check our thermostat settings.
That guy — the one who combines the domestic-policy modesty of Lyndon Johnson with the foreign-policy wizardry of Jimmy Carter — is the one ambivalent black conservatives would be voting for in the off chance we’d start talking differently about race.
That’s a lot to risk — all for racial intangibles not much greater than those evinced by the very fact of Obama’s nomination.
– Peter Kirsanow is a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. These comments do not necessarily reflect the position of the Commission.