Race: The Final Frontier

11/14/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Howard Winant Author, 'The World is a Ghetto' and 'Racial Formation in the United States'

As his campaign enters its final weeks, John McCain is a headless horseman. He is bereft of economic ideas, chained to the sinking ship of neoconservatism, and obliged to keep the hapless Sarah Palin afloat. He is still pounding the drums for an indefensible war. Whatever political coherence he once possessed has now been thrown to the winds. Whatever personal appeal he once projected has now been crushed beneath the nasty and arrogant sneer he too often displays in public. His intemperate personality has now come fully into view: this is the "real McCain."

So in these grim circumstances, what campaign strategy can we expect from McCain during the last few weeks before November 4th? What political weaponry can McCain possibly have left in his arsenal?

The grim answer is... race. Welcome to the final frontier of the 2008 electoral season.

The contest for the presidency has stabilized with Barack Obama in the lead. As electoral blocs consolidate and voters' positions harden, there are fewer and fewer groups open to McCain's appeals. Outside the snarling "base" that adores Palin and worships mindlessness, to whom can McCain appeal?

Black voters are 95% in Obama's camp. Latino/a voters, once seen as somewhat sympathetic to McCain, have now lined up behind Obama as well, especially since McCain repudiated his own immigration reform bill. White voters under 40 years of age are also a lost cause. But there remains a significant bloc of older white voters, many of them clustered in such swing states as Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Missouri, who say they "just don't trust" Obama. These folk are not all card-carrying members of the Republican "base." Many are union members. Many are "heartland" swing voters who resonated with the folksiness of the Clintons. Remember the "Reagan Democrats"? These voters, who simply can't wrap their heads around the idea of a black president, represent about 15% of the likely electorate. Their fear of a black hat is driven by a residual racism, something that they would be at pains to deny. It is based in a complex of emotions that has been cultivated by years of exposure to "colorblind" racial ideology, the kind that Ward Connerly peddles and that mainstream popular culture has elevated to a fine art of tokenism.

These voters overlap with those susceptible to the "Bradley effect" -- the ones who claim to support the black candidate but then, once in the voting booth, find themselves somehow incapable of actually pulling the lever for him/her. The Bradley effect has received a great deal of attention during this campaign. It undoubtedly will play some role, but will probably affect fewer white voters than was the case in the past. At the final frontier, though, is the 15% -- these older, working-class whites. They are the only swing voters McCain has left. He's got to appeal to them. He must heighten their racial quandary.

We have already seen the McCain campaign experimenting with covert racial appeals; "Who is the real Barack Obama?" the question posed both by McCain and Palin, is linked closely to the rumor-mill on the right: that Obama's religion, political positions, and even patriotism are suspect. Threats toward Obama have appropriately been denounced, most notably by civil rights icon John Lewis. And McCain moved, albeit belatedly, to put some distance between himself and his camp's desire to get its hate on, so to speak. But not much distance. Just enough to maintain "deniability."

With election day approaching, we should expect a resurgence of Republican negative racial campaigning. Desperation, combined with the Lee Atwater/Karl Rove tradition, demands no less. We hear many calls from the right to McCain: "Take the gloves off!" We already know what to expect: Obama's a "guy from the street" (translation: a thug, an urban predator). He believes in quotas; he will increase your taxes, and then take your hard-earned dollars and give them to those lazy welfare parasites. He will coddle criminals, turning loose thousands of predators to victimize our children and our neighborhoods. He'll be protecting the rights of Muslim terrorists.

How should Obama deal with the fear- and hate-mongering likely to be produced, not so much by McCain himself, but by his surrogates? Of course he will keep his cool. His poise has never been in doubt.

But he should not the neglect the opportunity these attacks will provide to educate the electorate and uplift American political discourse. He must overcome his reluctance (and his advisers' fears) to address race once again, in order to appeal to what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature." As he has done in the past (most notably in his March 18, 2008 speech in Philadelphia, "A More Perfect Union") Obama can confront racism wisely, making full use of the spirit of democracy itself. He can appeal to our common interests that cut across racial lines: America's deep need for social justice, equality, fairness, community, and peace. He can expose efforts to foment fear and mistrust along racial lines, while also recognizing race as a major factor in US identity.

More than any other mainstream political leader in American history, Obama has the ability to challenge racism -- our nation's most deep-seated division -- and to unify the country across racial lines. To fulfill that hope, to move us closer to racial equality and racial justice, would truly be to cross a final frontier.