Beyond Race

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A hundred years from now, historians will probably cite Barack Obama’s election to the presidency as a momentous victory in America’s struggle against racism. The arrival of the first Africans in Jamestown in 1619 and the election of an African-American to the presidency in 2008 make a nice pair of bookends. But of course, only in Hollywood is a story line so tidy. Neither history and nor the struggle against racism has reached an end. So: What will those future historians look back upon as the victory against racism that followed the election of Barack Obama? Here’s a thought.

The election of President Obama was caused, at least in part, by the fact that many of his white supporters felt good about voting for him because he is black. This feeling was not a secret. It was much discussed at the time. And there was nothing mysterious about it. Many white Americans felt, and still feel, a pang of guilt and shame about the historical treatment of black people in the United States. To cast a vote for a black candidate was a way of alleviating the sting, a means of atoning for the collective sins of the past. To support a black candidate was a way of saying, “I am not a racist.” The wave of euphoria created by this public affirmation swept over millions of enthusiastic white voters.

Caution is called for here. The subject of race is sensitive. To be fair, there were probably thousands of white voters who did not take into account Mr. Obama’s ethnicity when they voted for him. There were probably thousands more who voted for him in spite of his race. However many voters there were in these two groups, the following is not about them.

To accuse someone of harboring racist motives is a serious matter. Nevertheless, the truth must be told, and it is this: the extent to which a voter selects a candidate based on race is the extent to which that voter is guilty of racial bias. Racism is, after all, discrimination on the basis of race. To vote for or against any candidate because of that candidate’s race is, simply put, racist. For example, to vote for John McCain would be one thing, but to vote for him because he is white is quite another. Sorry for being so blunt, but there it is.

Now imagine how the current presidential campaign season would look if the Democratic incumbent were white and all other variables were unchanged. Bear with me.

The national debt is many trillions and rising fast. The annual deficit is a trillion-point-whatever. The fed is creating money (not wealth) like there’s no tomorrow. The unemployment rate is at some painfully high level and falling oh-so-slowly. Record numbers of twenty- and thirty-somethings live with their parents. Millions of mortgages are under water. College debts are astronomical. Federal entitlement programs are fiscal time bombs. Food grows more expensive weekly. Gas prices are through the roof. The EU is slowly fracturing. There is no sign of peace in the Middle East. The Arab Spring is a mess. Iraq is sliding back into authoritarianism. The Taliban is running out the clock. Iran is nuking up like North Korea. Russian democracy is dying in the cradle. Mexico is overrun by drug gangs. China is our manufactured-goods crack dealer and T-bill loan shark. There’s more, but you get the picture.

Now ask yourself: in this set of circumstances, would a white Democratic incumbent have a prayer of reelection? (Hint: No.) Why, then, is the president doing so well in the polls? I’ll say it: President Obama’s fairly rosy reelection prospects are the result of the same racial bias that put him in office in the first place. For most African-Americans, not to vote for him is out of the question. For many guilt-ridden white voters, not to vote for him would just be too painful.

Still, there is hope. A hundred years from now, historians may look back at the election of 2012 and say that the American electorate closed its eyes to race, endured the pangs of guilt, chose to do without the second wave of euphoria, and won a major victory in the struggle against racism by making Barack Obama a one-term president.

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