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Archive for October 9th, 2008

Alright, I’m just gonna go ahead and post on this. I’ve been trying to resist, since it seems all I ever blog about anymore is Obama and race. But the cultural Zeitgeist is what it is.

Earlier this week, Politico ran a series of articles on the role of race in the current presidential battle. The pieces covered all the now-familiar terrain, speculating on how big of a role race (or racism) could play in the upcoming election. For me, the most interesting piece was a report on “How Obama Quietly Targets Blacks.”

One of the most fascinating aspects of Obama’s campaign has been the delicate balance he must strike between reaching white voters and black voters. The unspoken understanding has long been that if Obama does too much to appeal to the African American community, he’d scare off many in the white community. While I think this is silly and perhaps insulting to many white voters who have no problem with Obama’s skin color, I also think it’s true a lot of the time. Again, the Zeitgeist is what it is.

And so, for the majority of his campaign, Obama has found it necessary to treat the African American community the same way a bashful eighth-grader does that pretty girl in English class—glancing at her only in quick snatches, lest his secret crush become a topic of public discussion among all the middle-schoolers. Here’s one of that Politico article’s most riveting quotes:

“What [Obama] has done is he’s shunned black voters — but he knows that they know that he’s black. And he knows that they know in our communities we have a certain feeling that he’s got to do that to get those white votes,” said Kevin Wardally, a New York City political consultant who worked for Hillary Rodham Clinton. “We inherently believe that what he’s doing he has to do — he has to not be in Harlem to get those white votes.” 

As I read that, I wondered how some white readers would interpret this statement. Would it seem to them that Obama is being sneaky or disingenuous? Would they be able to recognize the sad irony in all of this? The thing is, white politicians can often be very upfront about appealing to the cultural sensibilities of white voters. For instance, when Sarah Palin talks about Obama not feeling that “our great country” is perfect enough, something tells me she’s not thinking of non-whites when she says “our.” If an African American politician like Obama were as brazen with black voters, he wouldn’t stand a chance.

I confess that I was intrigued by these Politico reports. But to tell you the truth, I think these types of articles are getting old. Every day brings another examination of the role of race. Will the “Bradley Effect” rob Barack Obama of the presidential race, even though the polls keep putting him well ahead? Will the “Bubba Vote” save John McCain? Did McCain mean something sinister during the debate when he said, “That One”? Are Sarah Palin’s frequent slams against Obama before mostly white audiences (“This is not a man who sees America like you and I see America”) racial code for something else?

I could give you my opinion, but what difference would it really make? Who really cares anymore? Are any of us truly ready to see the argument from the other side’s perspective? Some will call it racism. Some will call it down-and-dirty campaigning. It is what it is. And depending on your personal experience, your political affiliation, your cultural background, and perhaps the color of your skin, you’re going to have a different opinion about the meaning of it all. Honestly, at the end of the day, none of that really matters.

What does matter, however, is how we’re treating our fellow citizens, how we’re treating our brothers and sisters. Sometimes I almost think it would be best to put real life on hold during the high theater of this phase of the election season, when emotions are high and partisan rhetoric is running at a fever pitch. In these latter days of the race, there’s usually no room for banal values like respect, compassion, and grace. Right now, it’s all about getting our guy (or gal) elected.

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