08/01/2008 11:47 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

McCain and Obama Have Played the Race Card

Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama is anything but naïve. He knew the instant that he tossed his hat in the presidential ring that race would be an issue, maybe even the dominating issue in the White House campaign. No matter how much generic, race neutral talk he made about hope and change, and no matter how much time he spent talking about the Iraq War, the Iran Missile threat, the war on terrorism, a tanking economy, and the lack of affordable health care, race would lurk close to the surface.

So it's hardly a revelation that Republican rival John McCain would turn the tables and accuse Obama of playing the race card. This deft or crude bit of reverse political psychology says Obama plants a seed in voter's minds that he hides behind color to play on white guilt, or do a hit job on McCain. Or simply to preempt McCain from using what some consider sneaky and insidious code words such as inexperienced, novice, and greenhorn on foreign policy issues as surrogates for race.

But Obama does have a point about the peril of race. A legion of websites has cropped up to spew non-stop borderline racist digs at Obama and his wife, Michelle. McCain has swiftly disavowed all race tinged ads, cracks, taunts against Obama as well as the New Yorker magazine cover, at least publicly. The jury is way out whether these attacks help or hurt Obama.

Meanwhile, Obama's hands aren't completely clean on the race issue. Team Obama lambasted Hillary Clinton for supposedly denigrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., made a blatant racial pitch to blacks to flood the polls in the South Carolina primary, and uses a bible thumping preacher cadence in talking to black audiences.

Then there's the curious quip that he doesn't look like all the other presidents on dollar bills. This got McCain's dander up since the obvious inference was that maybe it's time for a black to be on those bills. This is hardly a race neutral way to make the point that Republicans allegedly are using scare tactics against him.

Even while Obama and McCain cautiously tip around race, they have been fascinated and terrified by its potential to do both harm and good to their campaigns. The faintest utterance from McCain about race and Obama will bring loud, outraged shouts that McCain is playing dirty racial pool. But the reality is that at times this ploy has worked to sink black candidates who have run head to head with white candidates in more than a few state races. A racial hit even helped sink a white candidate presidential campaign; the Willie Horton hit on Michael Dukakis in 1988.

On the other hand, Obama will get reamed if he dares make a racial utterance as he did with the quip about the faces of presidents on dollar bills, or complain that he is being picked at by the GOP because he is black. The rap is that he screams racism to drum up public sympathy and votes. But the reality is that this work too. It stirs disgust and anger that Obama is being racially targeted. This was the case with the New Yorker cover.

Obama and McCain can play it as close to the vest as humanly possible and never make any allusion to, or charge about race. Yet race still will be shoved down their throats. This was virtually preordained when every media outlet made a virtual mantra of the question: Can an African-American win the presidency? There have been endless variations on that question. This imprinted the notion that race does, or at least might, matter to an awful lot of voters, black and white, but especially white voters.

Unfortunately, this has proven to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

During his hard fought Democratic primaries with Clinton, a significant percentage of whites were unabashed in saying that they wouldn't and didn't vote for Obama because of his color. Obama publicly shrugged it off with the retort that he was aware that some whites wouldn't support him because he was black but that he was confident this was a tiny minority. Privately, Team Obama worry that the number who think that way might be more than a small bigoted minority. He hedged his bet by again making an obvious racial pitch for blacks to mob the polls in November. McCain moved quickly to capitalize on the anti-Obama racial sentiment by imploring these turned off Democrats to cross over and back him. McCain never mentioned race, but race is the subtle undercurrent in their disaffection with Obama.

Obama is ever alert to race and the potential damage that it can do to his White House drive. That's why he wasted no time in accusing McCain of "injecting' race into the campaign with his racial knock against him for his dollar bill remark. It won't be the last time the two will finger point each other for a racial injection. And they'll be right about each other each time.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).