On Obama's Decracialization Strategy

05/20/2008 07:44 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

One of the major pillars of Barack Obama's presidential campaign strategy has centered around something known as deracialization. It's a dilemma-filled political strategy with a rich recent history. Black candidates in majority-White jurisdictions - from L. Douglas Wilder in Virginia, to Norman Rice in Seattle, to Ron Kirk in Dallas, to Wellington Webb in Denver - have practiced it on their way to electoral wins. Some see it as a necessary evil for Black candidates running in majority-White jurisdictions, while others see it as an unfortunate capitulation to the reality of White prejudice. Either way, it's part of doing business in American politics and Obama is beginning to see the downside of the only "racial" strategy that he had at his disposal.

Deracialization is an amorphous, never admitted to political practice that forces African American candidates to remove virtually all evidence of race as a central part of his or her being. It's a delicate socio-political dance that is partly a reaction to the reality of race in America. White voters - even progressive white voters - have adverse reactions to those candidates who don't hide their Blackness.

Obama's decision to deracialize his candidacy was the only chance he had to avoid the dreaded "Black candidate" moniker. To divert attention from race, Obama has avoided some of the messy issues that have obvious racial dimensions. Recently, Obama gave an uninspiring response to the acquittal of New York police officers who fired 50 shots in a car of unarmed Black men, killing one just hours before his wedding.

Instead, he has emphasized vague traits like inclusion, change, and hope - the kinds of things that sound great but have many different connotations and may actually not amount to much. These traits are among the factors that have led Whites to conclude that he is acceptable because he's not "bogged down" in race (we are so touchy about race that even mentioning it can lead to being seen as "bogged down" in it). Indeed, he is seen as someone that "transcends" race, a slightly-offensive compliment that has legitimized him in the eyes of some White voters and led many skeptics to accept the notion that America is ready for a Black president.

The problem with deracialization, though, is that it raises the racial stakes for the candidate who practices it and the voting public. The candidate has to continually narrow the topics on which he or she will address. Meanwhile, voters may find themselves on the lookout for anything that may reveal the "real" candidate who seems to be too perfect. They may punish the candidate if something does arise and that appears to be the case with Obama and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

The deracialization strategy worked well for Obama until You Tube introduced Wright to the country. Now, all of a sudden, Obama's deracialization strategy has been turned upside down by the reaction to Wright's words. White voters are beginning to take a second look at the "transcendent one," wondering if he may be hiding something about his true feelings on race. Some are questioning his commitment to racial comity by virtue of his nearly 20 years as a member of Wright's church.

The deracialization of Black candidates says more about the country than most are willing to admit and raises a number of questions that must be address before we can "go beyond race," as some seem to want. Why must the reality of race in America be submerged or, worse, ignored? Why are candidates who intelligently raise issues that have racial dimensions immediately marginalized as the "Black" candidate or someone playing the race card? Why is the "Black candidate" moniker so unpopular that Obama has gone to such great lengths to avoid it?

Michael K. Fauntroy is an assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University and author of Republicans and the Black Vote. A registered Independent, he blogs at: