09/08/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Once Again Obama Should Address Race

Let's start with this: the Republican Party is the white party. It attracts tiny percentages of black voters, and way fewer Latinos than it did even in 2004. Still got some Cuban Americans and a token conservative of color or two, maybe some Asian Americans uncomfortable with their lingering racial otherness. But basically it's a restricted scene, like some suburban golf club. Wait until the Republican convention happens in Minneapolis: it's going to be a sea of whiteness. Whatever black and brown faces you see on your screen will be working overtime and getting paid premium rates.

Meanwhile the Democratic Party convention is going to look like Dr. King's dream finally came true. While Republicans complain about illegal aliens, lots of Democrats will be named Hernandez or Gonzalez, Tasheika Williams or Tyrone Washington, Leland Wong or James Red Deer. While Republicans oppose health care reform and increased educational opportunity as government handouts to the undeserving (and you know what color they are), the Democrats will be talking about opportunity for all Americans of every race. Whites too; there will be lots and lots of whites at the Democrats' convention in Denver. They'll be the young whites, the hip and excited whites, the ones from the unions, from Planned Parenthood, from the Sierra Club.

The Democratic convention will look like a party, and the Republican convention will look like a funeral.

In this situation it's not hard to understand why the McCain campaign is defaulting to race, charging Obama with "playing the race card." When Obama says "I don't look like I came out of central casting when it comes to Presidential candidates," he is merely stating the obvious. Since his March 18, 2008 speech in Philadelphia, the most profound public statement on race in many decades, Obama has been effectively and consciously redefining racial politics. He has been moving the country beyond the exploitation of racial fear and toward the possibility of racial reconciliation. McCain campaign manager Rick Davis's charge that "Barack Obama has played the race card," is thus a terrible travesty of the truth. "And he played it from the bottom of the deck," Davis said, whatever that additional insult is supposed to mean. This attack is itself an act of race-baiting, deeply attuned to the legacy of Lee Atwater and Jesse Helms, fully committed, as Obama pointed out, "to make you scared of me."

The McCain campaign is making a desperate and dirty move here. McCain is bereft of ideas, chained to his corrupt and despotic party, unable to mount a credible campaign. He desperately needs to stoke racial fears among whites. His race-baiting is especially dirty because it is indirect. If he can charge Obama with bringing up race, maybe he can get the benefits of the baiting but avoid the blame. He needs to pry white votes away from Obama; he needs to stir up those primordial white fears. Like Nat Turner is coming back, he's seeking revenge, he's roaming the 21st-century suburbs like once he stalked the Virginia tidewater country....

The conventional wisdom is that this stuff still works, that no matter how devious and dishonest, addressing the subject of race hurts Obama and thus helps McCain. The Obama campaign seems to agree, at least for now. It is also trying to defuse the issue, to emphasize class rather than race in order to protect the candidate's real but still unconsolidated appeal to white voters. Especially whites above a certain age, and those below a certain income level, may not react favorably to Obama's appeals to what Lincoln famously called "the better angels of our nature." Even if he leads the way towards greater understanding across racial lines, even if he shows us the possibility of "a more perfect union," both the pundits and the campaign's chief strategists argue, Obama can only lose ground by entering the thickets of race.

Maybe. But it is also possible that Obama can consolidate his "brand" by addressing race openly, as he has already done in the past. Obama's own hybrid racial identity has been a source of his appeal, rooted in the idea that because he "transcends" race in some ways, he can lead the country in transcending it as well. That idea is at least comforting, even if it falls far short of Dr. King's dream that America could yet "live out the true meaning of its creed." And certainly some whites are so afraid of a black candidate that no approach to race can win their hearts; for these folk neither addressing race nor avoiding it presents any particular advantage for Obama, since they remain trapped in their own racist fears. For many voters, however, the candidate who clearly affirms his/her convictions, not the one who avoids key issues, is the one who most inspires confidence. This is especially true for the younger voters whom Obama hopes to bring to the polls in great numbers. Millions of young white voters -- whose votes Obama needs if he's going to win -- are not as uptight about race as their parents are. Along with black youth and brown youth (who have always been cultural innovators and style setters in the US) younger whites are willing to vote for a black man, but they want to be inspired. They want to believe in Obama's courage and ability to lead.

He has time and again accepted the challenge of directly addressing themes that were seen as too difficult to confront under the glare of the national spotlight. The Obama who is being advised to downplay race is also the candidate who confronted the race-baiting of his opponents after the Jeremiah Wright affair. That other Obama conveys the candidate's true brand: he is the one who told the truth about himself in all-white Union, Missouri: "You know, he doesn't look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills." This Obama rejects the fear and the racist strategies that currently dominate the Republican Party and that have made it almost exclusively white. This is the man who embodies all the Americans who will celebrate his nomination in Denver. This is the courageous and visionary leader of "A More Perfect Union."

Let's hope we continue to hear from that Obama as well.

Howard Winant is a professor of sociology at UC Santa Barbara. He is the author of THE NEW POLITICS OF RACE (2004); THE WORLD IS A GHETTO: RACE AND DEMOCRACY SINCE WORLD WAR II (2001), and RACIAL FORMATION IN THE UNITED STATES (co-author, Michael Omi).

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