Barack Obama: white America’s candidate
Desperately hoping that he will change the ‘image of the USA’, white liberals have invested more hope and energy in Obama's campaign than have black Americans.
Barack Obama may not be the first African American to run for president, but he is certainly the first who is being taken seriously. When the media’s anointed one lost narrowly in New Hampshire following his shock victory in Iowa, and after having a clear lead over Hillary Clinton in the days before polling, it was almost as if somebody had died. Not only were the pollsters humiliated, but the TV, radio and newspaper commentators who had touted his presidential ambitions were hugely embarrassed. Having declared Obama as the Democratic candidate sans pareil, they suddenly discovered that there was life in the Clinton campaign yet, and that this primary season was to be a real contest.
What has changed that allows an African American to be a serious candidate? Does it mean the end of race as a political issue in American politics, or is something else afoot?
Obama follows in the footsteps of Dick Gregory (1968), Shirley Chisholm (1972), Jesse Jackson (1984 and 1988) and Reverend Al Sharpton (2004) in challenging for the presidency. Chisholm and Jackson made a decent showing of it, but none were near being nominated.
Obama’s campaign got off to a slow start. He failed to gain early support among blacks, but that was largely due to the fact that the junior senator from Illinois had less name recognition than the junior senator from New York. That’s hardly surprising, given Hillary Clinton’s provenance. But once he became the media darling, and the subject of a pseudo-coronation as the man who could orate America back to pre-eminence, that all changed.
Obama has had to work hard to gain support from the old-school black leaders, and in some cases has not tried too hard. Some of them derided Obama for not being black enough. Ever the insider, Clinton quickly gained support from the traditional powerhouses in the Democratic machine, civil rights leader Andrew Young, Congressman John Lewis from Georgia, business leader Vernon Jordan, basketball star Magic Johnson, music producer Quincy Jones and others. Meanwhile, Obama has gone out of his way to court non-traditional black leaders. Not for him the Al Sharptons and religious black leaders from the South. Oprah, Jay Z and Kanye West are more his style. This is a somewhat dangerous strategy, given that young people are not historically great at turning out to vote. However, the excitement about his candidacy is palpable, and dinner-party conversations about him verge on the hagiographic, among young and not-so-young liberal Democrats, black and white.
Obama first came to prominence when he delivered a speech introducing John Kerry as the Democratic candidate at the Democratic National Conference in 2004 (read the speech here). It didn’t hurt that his speech, ‘The audacity of hope’, was followed by the dry and dusty Kerry. Obama certainly can give a speech; his cadence and timing are superb. And he looks good, which never hurts. But when it comes to actual content, there’s not a lot there.
He also knows where his strengths lie and is the ultimate professional. After the New Hampshire primary, I was struck that the winners, Clinton and John McCain, gave stilted speeches, constantly referring to their notes. In fact, McCain almost read his speech out verbatim. Obama, on the other hand, gave his usual, beautifully crafted oration, short on content as always, but exquisitely delivered, even after a shocking defeat. I read in the next morning’s Wall Street Journal that he had used a teleprompter, giving him a significant advantage live on television when every political junkie in the country was watching.
A poll in mid-January by the Washington Post and ABC News showed that black Democrats now support Obama over Clinton by a ratio of nearly two to one. This was almost an exact reversal of the situation a couple of months previously and is somewhat surprising, given that Toni Morrison anointed Hillary’s husband Bill as the first black president of the US and she has considerable support among the traditional black leaders in Democratic politics. (We should note that Bill Clinton held the black vote in part because of his conservatism, and his ability to use the Bible as a political weapon.)
Today, blacks tend to agree more with the Republicans than the Democrats over abortion, gay marriage and the death penalty, but are unlikely to vote Republican. The open sore of what happened to poor blacks after the Bush administration’s inept response to Hurricane Katrina is still too fresh and has been well manipulated by black and liberal leaders to reflect very badly on the Republican Party.
Spike Lee’s spellbinding documentary on the subject, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, is a perfect example of this. It’s a pity that his conspiracy theories about the disaster made too many headlines as they don’t appear to have influenced the end product. What we see on screen is a master lesson in allowing ordinary, mainly poor people, black and white, to tell their own stories about what did and more importantly did not happen just before and for several days after the hurricane. I don’t recall a single voiceover telling me what I was looking at. Lee’s work in this regard is a lesson that most politicians are not interested in; the very idea that ordinary people can think for themselves and articulate it convincingly is anathema to the political class.
So, after Katrina, and with a seeming split between traditional black leaders such as Sharpton and the new black leader Obama – a younger man supported both by celebrities and many white voters – what likely impact will the black vote have on the outcome of the presidential race?
The black vote
African Americans make up some 13 per cent of the American electorate. Traditionally, they have voted Democrat, though historically, it was the Republican Party that, in a previous incarnation, did more for black equality than did the Democratic Party. It was, after all, the Republican Abraham Lincoln who fought for and won emancipation for the slaves. The Republican Party itself was founded as a result of the collapse of the Whigs, the division partly coming about as a result of disagreements over slavery. It was Democrats who founded the Ku Klux Klan, and the only sitting congressman with a proven record of being in the KKK is Democratic Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia.
Until the mid-1920s, blacks largely voted Republican due to the legacy of Lincoln, ‘the great emancipator’. The Depression and the subsequent New Deal of the 1930s – sponsored by the Democrat president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt – helped to reverse this trend, with huge benefits given to many poor blacks. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 accelerated this shift, especially when the Act inspired many conservative, southern Democrats (Dixiecrats) to defect to the Republicans and Barry Goldwater, one of the few Republicans who opposed the Act, won his party nomination to run for president. The effect of these events was to hand the black vote to the Democrats.
If that wasn’t enough, the Republicans’ ‘Southern Strategy’ that began in the late 1960s, created a fissure that has never been healed. As Richard Nixon explained it at the time: ‘From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 per cent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that… but Republicans would be short-sighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.’ (1)
The black vote is only really influential in the South, but this is also where the Republicans have the most influence; as a result, the black vote has been largely irrelevant, or at least has been until now. Southern Democrats Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter both won southern states when they ran for president, but Clinton didn’t need to win them for his victories, and Carter was a one-term anomaly from Georgia who knew his Bible. In fact, Bill Clinton largely won so much support among blacks because of his conservatism and Christian leanings. Today, black voters are closer to the Republicans than the Democrats on many social issues; Hillary knows this only too well, and hopes that Bill’s legacy will bring many of them out to support her.
Whether the Southern states come into play in November is yet to be seen, and will depend more on who the Republican candidate is than who the Democrat one is.
It’s only in the South that blacks constitute a block large enough to sway a result. And even then, they can’t do it without substantial white support. In Mississippi, 37 per cent of the population is black, the highest percentage of any state. Louisiana (33 per cent), South Carolina (30 per cent), Georgia and Maryland (29 per cent), and Alabama (27 per cent) follow. In the District of Columbia, which has no state rights, the population is 61 per cent black (2).
Southern black Democrats, especially women, are now torn, faced with supporting ‘one of their own’, or a candidate whose husband laid claim to the title as the ‘first black president’. Some black leaders, especially in the South, simply do not believe that white people would vote for a black man. But there is no doubt that Obama’s candidacy is generating huge interest. DeKalb county in central Atlanta, where the population is 55 per cent black, saw a 12-fold increase in voter registrations in the two days after Iowa, compared to a similar period four years ago (3).
Playing the race card
It’s very often difficult to know how much political thought goes into what candidates accuse each other of. For instance, was Hillary Clinton deliberately trying to force Obama to run as a ‘black candidate’ when she inserted race into the campaign in early January? Speaking at one of the debates, she appeared to denigrate the importance of the civil rights movement when she noted that Martin Luther King’s ‘dream began to be realised when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took a president to get it done.’ Obama didn’t completely rise to the bait, aware that by siding with the black rhetoric that Sharpton and his cronies are famous for would be more likely to alienate white voters than appeal to black voters. And it’s whites and Hispanics he needs to win if he does become the Democrat nominee. Despite what some say about not relying on the black vote, it’s safe to say he can. In fact, the main concern many blacks have is that if he were to be the nominee, or even win the presidency, his biggest problem would likely be the number of people wanting to assassinate him.
In a perceptive opinion piece in the Washington Post, William Jelani Cobb said that the old civil rights leaders can see their influence, such as it is, being destroyed by Obama’s candidacy: ‘Obama is indebted, but not beholden, to the civil rights gerontocracy. A successful Obama candidacy would simultaneously represent a huge leap forward for black America and the death knell for the reign of the civil rights-era leadership – or at least the illusion of their influence.’ (4)
Only one significant civil rights-era leader has endorsed Obama: Joseph Lowry of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The others owe more to Clinton and the Democratic leadership than does Obama, who won election to the Senate in 2006 when his presumptive opponent self-destructed after a sex scandal.
What happened in New Hampshire?
When looking to explain the huge difference between the polls, which showed Obama with a double-digit lead ,and the result, with Hillary Clinton enjoying a 39 per cent to 36 per cent victory, some sought to blame race, claiming that the ‘Bradley effect’ came to Clinton’s rescue. The Bradley effect is named after Tom Bradley, a black candidate for governor in California in 1982. Bradley lost after holding a commanding lead over his opponent George Deukmejian in the days leading up to the election. Other races around the country have seen similar results, as columnist Eugene Robinson pointed out recently:
‘The polls said David Dinkins would beat Rudy Giuliani by more than 10 points in the 1989 New York mayoral race; Dinkins ended up winning with 50 per cent of the vote to Giuliani’s 48 per cent. That same year, the polls gave Douglas Wilder an 11-point lead over Marshall Coleman in the Virginia governor’s race; Wilder squeaked into office by less than half a percentage point. In 1990, the polls said Harvey Gantt would handily defeat incumbent North Carolina senator Jesse Helms; Gantt lost, and it wasn’t even close.’ (5)
Some analysts posited that white Americans were not comfortable telling pollsters that they weren’t ready to vote for a black candidate, but when it came to actually pulling the lever they voted for the white candidate. There are arguments for and against the existence of the Bradley effect – and in many races between minority and white candidates it is simply non-existent – but the reality is that in almost every case, the black vote was exactly where it should have been while the white candidate’s vote rose in the days before the election. As in New Hampshire, undecided voters went for the white candidate. Were those decisions based on race? Perhaps some were, but it is more likely that the New Hampshire one was based on gender, with women (who represented 57 per cent of the electorate there) heavily supporting Clinton.
Like all other sections of society, blacks want their guy to win, and if they perceive that Obama can carry the day will support him. If it appears that Clinton will carry the day, then she will get their support. The reality is that come November, blacks will overwhelmingly support the Democratic candidate. Many strategists are convinced America has moved on from looking at a candidate’s colour when deciding for whom to vote. Just as Oprah, Jay-Z and Kanye West have huge numbers of white fans, so does Obama. As in any other election in any country, there are some voters who will never vote for a woman or a minority candidate. But as David Bositis, of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, told the New Yorker: ‘It’s not that white people are not going to vote for a black candidate. That is so yesterday.’ (6)
Bositis is right. A significant majority of people do look far beyond a candidate’s race or gender when deciding whether to vote for him or her. But Obama’s candidacy reflects a lot more than that. Many white liberals feel that his success in coming this far – and especially if he wins – tells us so much about how the United States feels about itself. David Greenberg called him the ‘great white hope’, and quoted social critic John McWhorter as saying: ‘What gives people a jolt in their gut about the idea of President Obama is the idea that it would be a ringing symbol that racism no longer rules our land.’ (7)
The reality is that white America has more invested in this candidate than does black America.
Given the way the campaign has been run so far, it’s a bizarre thought that if Clinton wins, she will be more beholden to African Americans than Obama will be if he wins. She will owe them in a way that Obama will never do. If Obama is the candidate, we can safely expect black Americans to vote in unprecedented numbers, but he will owe them nothing because he is black. Hillary, on the other hand, while she may not have to rely on them to win the presidency if she is the eventual candidate, will need many black votes to beat Obama in the first place, so will owe them big time.
The fact is that Obama’s race matters more to whites than it does to blacks. Race is still a huge issue in America, but in a very different way than before. Today, white liberals have more invested in Obama than do African Americans. And for that reason, if he is not the eventual nominee it will hurt them. But not as much as if he is the nominee and falls to some no-mark Republican. That, for liberals, will confirm the endemic racism they see everywhere, ignoring the fact that it is Obama’s race, not his qualities as a leader, that they most love about him themselves.
John Browne is a writer based in Washington, DC.
Alan Miller argued that Ron Paul was no friend of freedom. Helen Searls looked at the reasons for Hillary Clinton’s fluctuating fortunes. Mick Hume asked what Hope for real Change in America?. Sean Collins got to grips with Obama-mania. John Browne looked at why an outsider like Mike Huckabee could win the Republican race in Iowa. Or read more at spiked issues USA and White House 2008.
(1) Nixon’s Southern strategy: ‘It’s All in the Charts’, New York Times Magazine, 17 May 1970
(2) See Black Facts, Congressional Black Caucus
(3) Southern Blacks Are Split on Clinton vs Obama, New York Times, January 18, 2008
(4) As Obama Rises, Old Guard Civil Rights Leaders Scowl, Washington Post, 13 January 2008
(5) Echoes of Tom Bradley, Washington Post, 11 January 2008
(6) Minority Reports, New Yorker, 21 January 2008
(7) Why Obamamania? Because He Runs as The Great White Hope, Washington Post, 13 January 2008
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