Virginia Congressman Tom Davis flatly said that whites could rid themselves of 400 years of guilt by voting for Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama. Davis's proof of this was a voter survey in his district that purportedly showed white voters by a good margin backed Obama over Clinton. Davis was recently cited and commended by the Lehrer Hour Duet of Mark Green and David Brooks. His quip may have been flippant, or said tongue-in-cheek. But then again maybe he actually believes that whites are so guiltridden they'll vote for Obama.
If so, he's hardly the first to say that. Black conservative pundit Shelby Steele kicked up a fuss when he argued pretty much the same thing in his book on Obama. He cast him as the breathing embodiment of black victimhood and white guilt over it.
And from across the pond, Trevor Phillips, controversial chairman of Britian's Equality and Human Rights Commission also recently weighed in on the white guilt equals Obama surge. He claimed that Obama is cut whole cloth from white guilt and that if elected he would set back race relations by letting whites that vote for him puff their chests out, pat themselves on the back, and proclaim that racism is dead as a doornail.
Davis, Steele, and Howard got it wrong. After all how do you measure guilt whether it is racial or personal? Psychologists say guilt stems from a deep feeling on the part of an individual that they committed a wrong through neglect, dislike, or injury to another. It manifests itself in anxiety, remorse, anguish, and depression. Obama is a candidate for president, not an innocent victim that someone splattered on the side of the road in an accident, or a child or relative that someone harmed and now feels an acute need for atonement.
Moreover, he's hardly the first African-American politician who's gotten elected wholly or with substantial white votes. The list stretching back years to Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley to Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick is legion. Former Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford, Jr. in his run for the U.S. Senate is oft cited as a victim of white polling voting booth duplicity. Yet he still got more than 40 percent of the white vote in his election defeat. Obama's fresh face, new politics pitch for hope, change, and unity has touched a real nerve with whites, especially young whites. This has nothing to do with race, let alone any guilt over slavery or lynchings (not even concepts in their thinking).
The deluge of court rulings, legislature knock downs of affirmative action statutes, the frantic sprint by colleges and government agencies, including moderate Democratic president Bill Clinton to water down affirmative action programs, and the overwhelming cheer by white voters in Northern states of anti-affirmative action measures should have long since killed any notion that the majority of whites are hopeless bleeding hearts when it comes to giving a preferential leg up to blacks and minorities.
Now having piled on all the dismissals, qualifiers and retorts to the racial guilt theory about Obama, the nagging question is not so much whether some whites think that punching the ticket for Obama salves some vague stirrings of racial guilt over the treatment of blacks. It's why race is still such a taboo subject that it pricks so many fears and sensibilities that the media and much of the public has given Obama a feather touch when it comes to a laser scrutiny of his past, politics, performance record in the Illinois legislature and the Senate, as well as not demanding to know how he'll implement the changes he says he's about once in the White House.
This writer has continually argued that if there's a racial tilt it's in not holding him to a tough standard of scrutiny. This does a horrible disservice to voters. In turn voters, and that especially includes the true believer Obama backers, do a horrible disservice to themselves in not demanding that a hard standard of accountability be applied to him.
The media maniac over loose cannon statements by Obama's radical, afro-centric spiritual mentor Jeremiah Wright hardly fits that bill. That's just standard cheap, tawdry, shock journalism to grab headlines, sell papers, and get the gossip tongues wagging.
Ultimately, the debate over whether Obama benefits from racial guilt is facile, dime store psychology, and ultimately irrelevant (a guilty vote is still a vote). What's relevant is for the media and the public to do its job and dissect Obama's positions as it does with any other credible and bona fide candidate for the highest office in the land. Until it does that the gates will always be wide open for the Davis's and Steele's to scream that he's where he is because of racial shame. In fact, Obama instead of publicly cringing at even the most tepid criticism should scream loudest of all against any media and public preferential treatment of him. He should be the last one to want anyone to think that he's a balm for any white supposedly tormented by racial guilt.
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).