06/12/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Barack Obama, Race, and the Message of Change

Who would have thought that 2008 would be a defining moment in our nation's
history? Democrats divided almost equally between two barrier-breaking candidates, but
at the end of the day, we nominated an African-American rather than a woman for
President of the United States. Is it surprising that his race has been a factor in the
primaries and may be as important in the general election? Hardly. Anyone who is the
least bit candid on this issue knows that race permeates many aspects of American
society. Why wouldn't the race issue pervade the election of a black presidential
nominee? That is why this campaign will do more to transform what Gunnar Myrdal
called our "American Dilemma" than any event since the Civil Rights Movement.

Sadly, race has shaped us socially and politically from colonial times. When the
founding fathers, for all their brilliance, compromised on the issue of slavery, our
nation's history became forever dominated by a struggle over the meaning of citizenship
and individual rights. When our national Constitution guaranteed basic rights of life,
liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to one race but not another, black Americans were
made forever "different," separated from whites by a lesser status before the law.

Despite Constitutional amendments abolishing slavery and granting equal rights
to former slaves in the 1860s, physical segregation between the races, economic and
social exclusion, and less access to public resources continued for another hundred years.
Blacks' legalized "inferiority" became deeply institutionalized in American society and
deeply ingrained in whites' views of blacks and blacks' views of whites. Negative
feelings about other races remain just below the surface of our everyday lives. Many
important issues in American history have come and gone, but race has been a constant.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s began to break down
institutionalized racism, but the baby boomers (and just pre-boomers like me) who grew
up in those years -- today's fifty and sixty somethings -- experienced a largely segregated
America. They also experienced the 1960s' urban riots in the North and the long-running
conflict over school desegregation in the South and bussing in the North. Blacks and
whites saw these struggles to change the past in the context of their own pasts -- whites, in
terms of a post-World War II world of expanding opportunities, and blacks in terms of a
post-World War II world of barriers to opportunity and of continued de facto segregation
and discrimination.

Even so, social change did occur and we made enormous progress. Ironically, my
generation helped make the exciting candidacies of Barack Obama (and Hillary Clinton)
possible, but some of us -- those with less education and lower income, those who have
lost the most economically under Republicans -- seem to have a hard time with race in
this historic year of change. Yet, in the 1960s and 1970s many accepted the great
transition of school and university desegregation, accepted opening the doors to better job
opportunities for African-Americans, Latinos, and women, and worked with black
leaders to begin breaking down deeply ingrained legal and social inequalities between
white men and everyone else.

Here is the problem: these changes have not eliminated the sense among some
whites of the "differentness" imposed on blacks by the founding fathers. That is why
Barack Obama's candidacy and election to the Presidency is so important. Race is still a
keystone of our current political and social history. More than a few blacks resent whites,
and more than a few whites say they would not vote for a black candidate for higher
office. A high fraction of Southern and some Northern whites turned against the
Democratic Party when the Party backed the Civil Rights Movement and consciously
became multiracial. Many self-styled "conservative" whites -- whether Republicans,
Democrats, or Independents -- may not be racists, but they seem highly susceptible to the
politics of racial stereotypes. And then there are still those who will not vote for a black
candidate on any grounds and say so.

Some pundits suggest that Obama was forced by Hillary Clinton's win in New
Hampshire to become more "black" in order to win South Carolina. In turn, the pundits
argue, this probably alienated working class whites as the primary season continued, and
Senator Clinton exploited that alienation. Fair enough. Reverend Wright also did his
share in reminding those voters who might have missed it that blacks in America are not
white. But even if Obama had sewed up his candidacy in New Hampshire, race would
emerge as a campaign issue and the Republicans would find a thousand ways to play the
race card. The party of Lincoln the emancipator seems to be finding salvation in the 21st
century as the party of racial innuendo, push polling, and ID cards.

Senator Obama has rightly called for a national dialogue on race, and his
candidacy alone could and hopefully will spark that dialogue. Even if it doesn't -- even if
the Obama-McCain campaign is reduced to an ugly race-baiting slugfest meant to put
Obama on the defensive and pull all the fear strings of older, more conservative, less
educated Democratic and Independent white voters -- Senator Obama needs to do
everything he can to reach those groups. If he can convince at least some that their
struggle is not so different from his, Democrats will likely win the presidency in
November with a majority of the white vote, and Obama's victory will forever change the
race equation in American politics. It will unify white and black Americans around a
symbol of racial unity-- Obama himself. Obama is not only campaigning on the message
of change, he is the message of change.

Is my view of the election this November far-fetched and naive? I don't think so.
Most white voters and many of even those white Democrats who have difficulty
identifying with a potentially great President because of his color, can nevertheless
identify with Obama's vision for working Americans posed against these past eight years
of political pain and frustration. Economic and political conditions are stark enough today
to compel a high fraction of working class white voters to put overt and latent racial
feelings below their economic interests, especially on health care, jobs, social security,
and the inequity of the current tax system. They will choose the Democratic candidate
because of what he represents, not because he is one color or another. Barack Obama
will be able to convince them to do that -- to identify with his message and to identify
with him as the true anti-Bush. And when that happens, intentional or not, the act of
electing Obama will transform us all.

Martin Carnoy is Vida Jacks Professor of Education and Economics at Stanford

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