In the Sunday, September 14, 2008 edition of the Washington Post (Page B01), Randall Kennedy’s “The Big ‘What If’” article was published. Its subtitle, “The hopes of black America ride on his shoulders. But the outcome’s way up in the air.” When I first read this article I found it interesting yet missing something. After having a few days to mentally chew on it, I now offer the following quick comments.
This opinion piece is obviously written from Kennedy’s perspective. He begins by stating a few demographics, namely that he is a “black man born in 1954” who grew up during the civil rights movement. He weaves his personal history into his current and expected reaction within the current political climate. The subject is Barack Obama and what this stage in history means to black Americans: “With intelligence, verve and elegance, Obama has opened the public mind to the idea of a black president and made that idea broadly attractive.”
In the fourth paragraph Kennedy builds the case for the basis of the article and in the fifth asks the question that for which the article is entitled.
I know that the conclusion to this electoral drama is far from determined. Yes, political gravity would seem to favor the Democratic candidate after two terms of Republican control of the White House. Yet the possibility is very real: Barack Obama could lose.
If that happens, then what? How will I feel? How will other black Americans feel? How should people like me feel?
The remainder of the article addresses these questions and feelings. I offer my perspective, in part, below.
I anticipate that most black Americans will believe that an Obama defeat will have stemmed in substantial part from a prejudice that robbed 40 million Americans of the chance to become president on the day they were born black. They will of course understand that race wasn’t the only significant variable — that party affiliation, ideological proclivities, strategic choices and dumb luck also mattered. But deep in their bones, they will believe — and probably rightly — that race was a key element, that had the racial shoe been on the other foot — had John McCain been black and Obama white — the result would have been different.
I agree that race will be a factor for millions of voters; however, it is not always a negative factor resulting in lost votes. For many people, both black and white, race will encourage them to vote for Obama. For many, Obama’s race will be their primary motivation in choosing to vote for him.
Kennedy correctly notes that Obama is not likely to attract many Republican voters and party loyalty does not suggest that race was a factor in their decision. As I read it, on a very basic level, he is saying Republicans cannot be racists for not considering Obama. In support of McCain and the vast majority or Republican efforts in this campaign, I think Republican opposition to Obama has actually been more issue-oriented than Republican opposition to Bill Clinton was — which was sometimes very personality-oriented (remember Slick Willie, Hill & Bill, the Clintonistas, Bubba and other names?). Thus, since Republicans are exempt from the race equation because it is unreasonable to expect them to support any Democrat, my theory is that if Obama loses the election because of racism, it will be because of racism within the Democratic party.
I am white and a lifelong resident of Mississippi, however, contrary to many stereotypes that some would apply to me, I have always viewed Obama on the issues. I am proud that a non-white candidate could be nominated in this country 45 years after King’s famous speech. For years I have said we will one day have a black President just like one day we will have a woman President; however, I have long argued that the first Woman or Black person elected to that office will be be a conservative because I think the country is more right-leaning than left-leaning overall. I would easily vote for a black conservative candidate for President but cannot vote for any candidate who is pro-abortion and so very liberal no matter what color they are. I simply feel, as many do, that Obama is the wrong candidate to be the first African American President. (For the record, it was Republican President George W. Bush who appointed Colin Powell and Condi Rice to positions of real power on the world scene. We’ve had Secretaries of State who were black during his entire administration which is something no other President ever did even once. I also think Powell could have been President if he had pursued it.)
I predict Obama will lose in November, not because he is “too black,” but because he is too liberal for more than half the voters. Like John Kerry before him, the Democrats again this election cycle nominated the most liberal man in the Senate and that does not sit well with most Americans in the center or on the right. It’s impossible to win without attracting voters from the political center and John McCain has a long record of attracting that voting block. Thus I predict McCain will win in November. However, if McCain wins in a landslide, it will not be because of racism on the right or even the center, but because Democrats abandoned Obama in the privacy of the voting booth. Given the tension between the Clinton and Obama camps, that, I feel, is a very real possibility.
So how should black Americans feel if (when?) Obama loses? I recommend everybody step back and look at the issues first before judging on skin color alone. Please consider the following:
First, a majority of the country is not liberal like Obama. Given the middle-right political viewpoints of most voters, for people who vote on issues, McCain is a more attractive candidate under such a comparison.
Second, all Americans can be proud that we have moved so much past race and gender stereotypes that a black candidate and a woman could be nominated by the two major parties and taken seriously.
Third, I think it’s time for black people to end their dependence on the Democratic Party and align themselves with both parties. Compete for attention instead of being taken for granted. I challenge every black person to compare the diversity of Bush’s cabinet versus Clinton’s. It was a Republican President who put minorities into top positions of power and “turned them loose.” Clinton’s “I want a cabinet that looks like America” was much more white than Bush’s “I want a cabinet of the best and the brightest.”
Fourth, don’t yell racism without proof. Obama won the Iowa caucuses handily and Iowa is about 95% white. Most of the states Obama won in the Democratic primary had a majority white electorate. Accusing racism without cause puts racist thought in people’s minds and perpetuates the evil instead of relegating it to the dustbin of history where it belongs.
Fifth, don’t give up. Teach your kids that they can aspire to be President and then teach them history, political science, economics, critical thinking, speech and other skills that a President needs so they are prepared to pursue that dream.
Sixth, unite as Americans — not black or white or minorities — and pursue the American Dream. Make this land a better place for everyone. Give more than you receive. Diversity is wonderful when it provides multiple avenues for reaching a common goal. Diversity without underlying unity, though, pulls us apart as a nation and is dangerous.
I firmly believe there will come a day when the United States will have Presidents who just happen to be black; however, voting for or against a candidate along “race” lines, whether white, black or any color, is utter foolishness and downright childish. We should grow up and move beyond the “race” figment of our imagination and look at the individual and the policies he or she supports. Let’s be colorblind.