John McWhorter has a beautifully written, calm, intelligent analysis of the possible black reactions to an Obama loss at the polls in The New Republic. First, let’s stipulate that it takes a great deal of optimism to write a lengthy, thoughtful essay about the effects of a McCain win on the race issue. McWhorter exhorts fellow blacks to resist the easy path back to the comfort zone of claiming that racism in America is what causes the central problems in black communities. He thinks it’s time for African Americans to consider that whites ought to be judging a black candidate (or a white one), as Dr. King suggested, on the content of his character.(Like, say, lack of experience. Or the fact that the Democratic party has not garnered more than 50.4% of the vote in any national election in 50 years.) If Obama doesn’t make it, there are plenty of reasons apart from race to account for it. He also makes a snide — well deserved — comment about how liberal whites will cheer on this reversion to cries of racism, should McCain win. All part of the race kabuki. We need a new script.
The prevailing sentiment would be expressed in tart declarations, considered the height of black authenticity, that bigotry did in the Obama campaign. Even now, the idea that white swing voters might pass on him because of his positions or campaign performance is considered a peculiar notion, likely from someone unhip to the gospel that America remains all about racism despite Colin Powell and Oprah. The money question is considered to be why our Great Black Hope isn’t polling tens of points ahead of John McCain and his discredited party. But Obama has been a sure shot only with Blue America college-town sorts, animated not only by Obama’s intellect, but also by his “diverseness” and its symbolic import for showing that our nasty past is truly past.
Obama, in fact, has limitations as a communicator beyond black people and the “Stuff White People Like” set. In his first debate with John McCain, when McCain assailed him as a big spender, Obama was almost strangely uninterested in pointing up the things he wants to spend money on–i.e., exactly the things needed by the struggling working class people he has trouble making inroads with. Luckily, he’s gotten past this some recently (see his calling health care a “right” during the second debate and his brass-tacks speech in Toledo on Monday). However, overall, professorial Obama still seems oblivious to the power of slogans. Reagan had “Morning in America”; Bill Clinton had “The End of Welfare As We Know It.” Obama has had the likes of the gauzy “Yes, We Can,” stirring as an opening gambit and good on T-shirts, but offering little to the folks facing layoffs while trying to pay their mortgage. To struggling black folks, ethnic identification pushes Obama over the edge regardless. But all folks aren’t black.
The Wisconsin chairman of the Republican Party notes, then, that for lunch pail whites, “I don’t think race is an issue at all. A bigger problem is that Barack Obama has a sort of show pony style. The speeches and the classic double speak and being a great orator, that kind of thing doesn’t play well in Wisconsin.” That is, there are plenty of non-racist whites who need a candidate to show them something more than I.Q. and a poignant multicultural provenance. In not finding Obama’s dreams of his father worthy of a vote, they are evaluating him as Dr. King would have counseled.
These are transitional times. In a recent Bloggingheads dialogue, Ta-Nehisi Coates admitted to me that Iowa had forced him to “reassess” his pessimism as to how far America has come on race. If Obama loses, people like Coates will desist in their reassessments, and settle back into their cognitive comfort zone. Whites will cheer on the sidelines: Nothing would establish a Good White Person’s bona fides on the race thing more than assenting that the racism “out there” is “still around” and has vanquished the audacity of hope.
The grievous result of this fetishization of racism would be that it would put a kibosh on the upsurge in black voters’ political engagement amidst the Obamenon. Newspaper articles would quote blacks disillusioned from getting excited about any future black candidate–e.g. “I thought maybe America was finally getting past racism but it turned out not to be true.” 2009 would be a year of countless panel discussions, quickie books, and celebrated rap couplets wallowing in the notion that the white man wouldn’t let Obama into the Oval Office where he belonged, urgently reminding us that to be black is still to be a victim.