What would an Obama win do for race relations? Who knows.

October 27, 2008

I didn’t give the incident much thought until a student brought it up in class. Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, interrupted a supporter who was denouncing his opponent, Sen. Barack Obama: “I can’t trust Obama,” she said. “I have read about him and he’s not, he’s not uh — he’s an Arab. He’s not… ”

McCain took back the microphone. “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign’s all about. He’s not…”

Not an Arab, presumably.

My student was outraged that McCain got away with suggesting that since Obama cares about his kids and his country he couldn’t be an Arab. Commentators were so ga-ga over McCain’s gentle reproach to a loopy fan that the fact he back-pedaled into a stunningly racist assertion went generally unremarked.

Such are the bizarre ways that race surfaces in the 2008 campaign. What’s odd is that while this election is historic precisely because of the major-party candidacy of a man who, under U.S. standards of race, is black, race goes unaddressed.  Instead, race is both everywhere and nowhere, overriding and unacknowledged, a presence rather than a set of concrete issues. It stalks the conference room, uninvited, and never gets to sit at the table with the subjects that matter.

It’s as if Obama’s candidacy has both made race a signature fact of the campaign, and removed it – and the policy concerns to which it’s normally linked — as an issue.

Sure, his own racial identity will influence voting. Black voters support him with near unanimity, while an AP-Yahoo News poll in September suggested that with a third of white Democrats holding negative views about blacks, the percentage of voters who may withhold support from Obama because of race could actually exceed the overall margin of victory in 2004.

Reporting what’s behind that is tough. A common reason for not exploring the role of race in this election is that white voters will dissemble, and those who won’t vote for Obama because of race are embarrassed to say so.

But surely, how race might tilt the vote isn’t the only racial issue worth reporting. What about exploring what an Obama victory would do to race relations? What would become of the myriad, passionately divisive policy issues that have been inextricably tied to race for the past half-century: the huge population of young black males behind bars, early childhood intervention, job training, the war on drugs, poor housing, the whole reality of race-tainted social justice?  We’re beyond those? Even the subprime lending debacle, which disproportionately hit minority homeowners, has been whitewashed into a race-neutral industry bailout.

I suppose this is partly because the black political establishment has been sidelined. Their constituents are already voting for Obama. So he doesn’t need to stick up for their issues – affirmative action, criminal justice reforms and job programs – which have made race a perennial hot-button and driven off white voters.

But the upshot is Obama has promised black America nothing, and it’s impossible to know what his victory would mean for race relations. Already some white commentators say his candidacy alone proves racism is over, and policies meant to compensate for its corrosive effects are anachronisms.

I can’t even say what African-Americans expect, beyond a powerfully symbolic vindication. Amazingly enough, when I turned to Time and Newsweek magazines for the same week of October, I saw both running columns with “What if Obama loses?” in the title — as if they’re unwilling to give up the master narrative of black victimhood , even while the  most remarkable African-American politician of the last half-century is within sight of a victory that was once unimaginable.

The media’s failure to force either candidate to talk about race-related policies creates an enormous potential for Obama, no less than McCain, to ignore or soft-pedal a basketful of historically explosive issues.

Three years ago, after Hurricane Katrina reacquainted white Americans with the persistence of black poverty, brave words were spoken and bold pledges made. How ironic it would be if now, this racially historic campaign ushered in a new era of racial neglect.

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