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Obama Navigates the Home Stretch

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Start with this: every national election has been about race. Go back as far as you want. You'll find the slavery-oriented elections, the immigration-oriented elections, the Jim Crow elections. You'll find civil rights as an issue before the eruption of the modern civil rights movement (1948 anyone?). There's Lyndon Johnson's famous statement after the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act ("We've just handed over the South to the Republicans for at least a generation"); there's George Wallace; there Lee Atwater and his Willie Horton ad. Down to now: the George Allen "macaca" incident effectively ended Allen's absurd status as presidential contender (along with his Senate career).

It's a "structural racism" scene. In the old days the racism was much more overt of course. Ask yourself why black voters are so astute, why they tend to vote in bloc? The answer is clear: they were "trained" under Jim Crow, when of course most blacks weren't permitted to vote. But the ones who could cast their ballot had to choose between, say, lynchmob candidate "A" for senator or governor who wanted to have a lynching EVERY DAY of the week, and lynchmob candidate "B" who only wanted to hold lynchings EVERY OTHER DAY of the week. Distinguishing between the worst and the merely very bad hones your voting skills big time.

OK. Ask yourself why white voters remain so susceptible to fear of a black hat, and the answer is also clear. Deep down, many whites (especially older voters, especially working-class men) still believe that blacks are less intelligent that whites and don't work as hard as whites, that they don't want to work, that they're criminal, that they're inferior. Or a part of them believes this: the unconscious part, the anonymous and disavowed part, the part that comes out when they're drunk or think they're alone with other white people who agree with them. The serious survey research on racial attitudes, and the best ethnographic work on race as "lived experience," bear this out.

Of course many whites are beyond this point, far more racially open than they used to be (especially younger voters and to some extent women). They've embarked on the journey of racial transition. Many whites are antiracist -- at least a lot of the time. There is now a white "double consciousness," something roughly parallel to the condition Du Bois's black American experienced: "...[A]n American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder...." Well, whites don't have to face anything like that kind of pressure; to a significant extent they can still think of themselves as "just people," people "without race." But not nearly so much anymore. Today they too have to consider their dual identities: an American, a white, two nervous souls. And in some places they're already a minoity themselves: California is now 58% nonwhite, and the whole country is trending that way. By around 2050, the US will be a "majority minority" society.

What what does Obama have to do with this? Everything. He's navigating it, in a whole new way. How many votes he gets depends on how well people can understand the course that he is steering through the shoals and reefs of the latest national election to be about race.

Before we consider his route in greater detail, take a look at those reefs! There's the Bill Clinton reef, the one that dismissed him as the "black candidate" in the Jesse Jackson mold after South Carolina. There's the Islamophobia reef (the turban picture, the madrasa charge, the stressing of his middle name). There's the anti-semitism reef (repudiate Farrakhan! denounce Palestinian terror! stand up for Israel!). There's a black nationalism reef (most effectively represented by Jeremiah Wright at the moment -- we'll get to him in a moment) and a black left reef (Adolph Reed, Glenn Ford), whose main criticism -- although it is not usually expressed this forthrightly -- is that Obama is "tom-ing." So whites and blacks are both going after Obama, rightists (mainly) but also quite a few leftists. He's steering through the channel, trying not to run aground, trying to appeal to voters who can still think, who are not ruled by fear or resentment.

It ain't easy, but it's still possible. Despite quite a few gaffes, Obama remains on the high road. He has not gone negative in any major way. His campaign operation has been well-crafted, well-financed, and well-organized. And most of all, he is approaching race, in the context of another highly racialized national election, in an entirely new way; he is recognizing the contradictions. Take a look at his Philly speech, where he tells us:

[W]e cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together - unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction...

In mid-March Obama still sought dialogue with the black radicalism and nationalism that necessarily and logically maintains strong roots in ghettos (and in black middle-class enclaves too) across America. He disapproved, he admonished, but he also recognized the roots of that anger. In fact he explained it as a generational phenomenon. He refused to spank Reverend Wright, settling for mere disagreement instead. He provided the nation, not only with a Lincolnesque speech, as Garry Wills has pointed out, but with an advanced lesson on race and democracy. And beyond that, he recouped some political points that Wright's fulminations had cost him, through the tender mercies of Fox News and the like.

But Wright was not reined in, not mollified. Perhaps he saw himself as a contemporary abolitionist, another Jeremiah, another prophet. Garry Wills sees him as playing the same counterpoint to Obama that John Brown (another wild-eyed preacher) played for Lincoln. One thing was clear: by late April Wright was steering an entirely different course than Obama. Far from navigating among the shoals of double consciousness, far from setting the helm for the proper destination -- winning the election -- as Obama was doing, Wright smashed his craft on the rocks of endemic white racism. Obama properly denounced Wright fiercely and thoroughly this time. Wright had not only betrayed his leader; he had arrogantly abandoned the quest for a new democratic racial politics.

Obama continues on the high road. Though he still holds the formal lead, his drive for the nomination remains in peril. The threat does not come from black supporters, who remain solidly behind him. As in earlier days, the black electorate is the most percipient, and blacks are still pound-for-pound the wisest voters in the nation. No, the threat to Obama comes now from white voters, especially older ones, the ones still disdainful of blacks, still afraid of blacks in ways they may not realize, still new to white double consciousness, still out of touch with white racial dualism. Obama must convince these whites to trust him, at least as much as they trust the other guy.

There is only one way to do that: to fight for their class interests. As working-class, as middle-class, they have suffered at the hands of the corporations, the elite, the Republicans. They have been screwed by Bush, screwed by the war. Obama must articulate their anger, as John Edwards did to some extent. He must turn that anger against the greed an corruption, the callousness and brutality, of the Republicans. He must channel that anger, lest it return to the anti-black racism that runs so deep in American culture.

We haven't seen much anger from him yet, maybe a bit in his repudiation of Wright, but his chief emotion then seemed to be sadness. Obama needs to develop some serious and articulate anger at the powers that be. He'd better do it fast. Can a black man get angry in a national election? Can he channel the righteous indignation of America, not just black but also white? Can he represent BOTH class resentment AND racial tolerance? America's future depends on the answer to that question.

Howard Winant teaches sociology at UC Santa Barbara, where he also directs the Center for New Racial Studies. He is the author of The World Is a Ghetto and (with Michael Omi) Racial Formation in the United States.