October 18, 2008


On The Content of His Character: If Obama loses, let's please not assume that racism was the cause. (John McWhorter, 10/16/08, The New Republic)

I find myself unable to trust that more than a sliver of black America would be able, if Obama lost, to assess that outcome according to--of all things--the content of his character.

For 40 years, black America has been misled by a claim that we can only be our best with the total eclipse of racist bias. Few put it in so many words, but the obsession with things like tabulating ever-finer shades of racism and calling for a "national conversation" on race in which whites would listen to blacks talk about racism are based on an assumption: that the descendants of African slaves in the United States are the only group of humans in history whose problems will vanish with a "level playing field," something no other group has ever supposed could be a reality.

The general conversation is drifting slowly away from this Utopianist canard, but nothing could help hustle it into obsolescence more than an Obama presidency, especially for the generation who grew up watching a black man and his family in the White House and had little memory of a time when it would have been considered an impossibility. At the same time, nothing could breathe new life into this gestural pessimism like an Obama loss. It would be the perfect enabler for a good ten years of aggrieved mulling over "the persistence of racism," which, for all of its cathartic seduction, would make no one less poor, more gainfully employed, or better educated.

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.

...just imagine how Senator Obama would have done in the primaries if he were white and running on such a vacuous "platform." He'd have finished behind even such a notorious empty suit as Joe Biden.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 18, 2008 8:34 AM
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