Ready, But Are We Willing?

We may have arrived at the point where race, even as it remains a potent factor, is not the only or most important one.

By Ellis Cose

From the magazine issue dated Jun 2, 2008

Hillary Clinton was “too hard” and Barack Obama “too black.” Thus proclaimed my new friend at Jillian’s sports bar in Columbia, S.C., at what was to have been a celebration of John Edwards’s victory in the primary there. So unless Edwards somehow secured the nomination, she was considering sitting out in November. Not that she had anything against Obama, she said, but the country was “not ready” for a black president. The woman, who’d been drinking heavily, then fell off her seat, ending our political discussion. A few days later, Edwards announced he was stepping aside “so that history can blaze its path.”

What path history will blaze is unclear. That Obama seems poised to become the Democratic nominee is certainly evidence we’ve arrived at a redefining moment in this nation’s evolution. But that’s not to say race has ceased to be of consequence.

Hillary Clinton made that point in a widely criticized interview, boasting she had a stronger base of support than Obama among “hardworking Americans, white Americans.” (She said she was misunderstood.) Clinton is not alone in suggesting that Obama has a blue-collar, white-voter problem. Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup poll, agrees that Clinton does better among whites than Obama does—but more because of Clinton’s appeal to white women than because Obama alienates blue-collar whites. “In general, Obama and Clinton perform … the same among non-Hispanic white men when pitted against presumptive Republican nominee John McCain,” observes Newport.

For years, most Americans have told pollsters they were prepared to put race aside when voting for a president. Some 94 percent of Americans (up from 53 percent in 1967) tell Gallup they would vote for a black candidate. But it’s impossible to know what to make of that, since respondents routinely lie to pollsters when asked any permutation of “Are you racially biased?” And that sort of racial litmus test makes less sense today than it once did. In the old days, when Southern governors were declaring allegiance to racial segregation, it was useful classifying Americans by whether they were racist. We are a different America today, one in which race interacts in a complicated way with other factors—age, gender, education, accent, religion, wealth—to determine how we feel about people and their place. It’s harder than ever to tease out a purely racial effect.

Timothy Egan recently argued in a New York Times blog that “Obama doesn’t have a white working class problem so much as a regional problem, in a place [Appalachia] where Democrats won’t win anyway.” The fact is, we don’t know where Democrats will win this year, or how much of a problem Obama has with voters of various colors and classes in states likely to be in play.

Some states will go predictably along party lines. Other states, particularly in the South, have been problematic for Democrats ever since Lyndon Johnson, taking up the anthem of the civil-rights movement, declared, “We shall overcome.” Two Southerners—Carter in 1976, Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996—put the South back into play. Obama may be able to do so, too. In the Louisiana primary, Obama won easily by getting significant support from whites and overwhelming support from blacks—which suggests that race may be a positive for Obama, or at worst a wash, as long as he manages to energize enough supporters (whatever their ethnicity) to cancel out those who cannot see past his race.

The dynamics of the general election will be affected not only by the Obama campaign but also by his opponent. If John McCain selects Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal as a running mate, the racialized voting cards get reshuffled. Voters will have to consider yet another dark-skinned candidate with an immigrant backstory (including parents from a non-Christian background) and a given name (Piyush) even more foreign-sounding than Barack.

Among Obama boosters, there is a feeling that their candidate is so much more than the sum of his parts that race ultimately will not be much of an issue. “I just think that as people see him up close, he’s going to inspire so many,” says John W. Rogers, chairman of Ariel Capital Management and a key Obama supporter.

It may well be that familiarity breeds affection—and that race vanishes as a concern. I doubt things will go quite that far. But at the very least, this campaign will likely reveal that we are more “ready” than my South Carolina friend assumes—that we have finally arrived at the point where race, even as it remains a potent factor, is far from the only or most important one.