January 15, 2008
Barack Obama's Race Problem: White LiberalsBy Charles J. Sykes
Barack Obama has a racial problem, but it's not what the media thinks -- it's not rednecks, older voters, or even women offended by attacks on Hillary Clinton. Obama's racial problem is white liberals.
"I'm OK, You're Not."
A central tenet of modern liberalism, after all, is the unshakeable conviction that white American is deeply and irredeemably racist. For three decades, America's white liberals have invested in the belief that American is so incapable of racial fairness that society needs a panoply of laws, preferences, quotas, set-asides, and remedial programs to ensure that black people are treated fairly.
All of those policies are fundamentally based on the belief that America is deeply racist, that their fellow Americans are personally biased and institutionally prejudiced -- consciously and unconsciously, intentionally and structurally; racist in history and practice.
It follows that many race-holding liberals will be among the last to believe that America will ever elect an African-American as president.
White liberals face this cognitive dissonance: if they decide that America is ready for a black president and back Obama they would also be forced to surrender or at least modify decades of convictions about American bias.
The euphemism for this is "electability," and it is one of the reasons why the race and gender cards are being played so aggressively among post-New Hampshire Democrats.
The spectacular failure of polling in New Hampshire may well be the first hint of how deeply the divide will affect the coming primaries. Notably, the polls for the Republican race were on target; but the Democratic polls drastically overstated Obama's support. Despite the initial wagon-circling denials of the media, the phenomenon is not new. In the past, other African American candidates -- Doug Wilder in Virginia; David Dinkins in New York, and Tom Bradley in Los Angeles - have done better in polls than at the ballot box, raising the possibility that white voters who wanted to look racially virtuous told pollsters they were backing Obama, but then actually voted for the white woman on the ballot.
One reason the magnitude of the error in New Hampshire was so much greater than in other biracial contests may be that nearly all of the Democrat respondents were white liberals, wrestling with the dual allegiances of gender and race politics.
"I'm offended. No I'm offended."
In the wake of Clinton's New Hampshire victory much of the punditocracy seems to be surprised by the sudden resurgence of race as a central factor in the presidential race. They shouldn't be.
Democrats, after all, are a party shaped and obsessed with identity and grievance politics, so the clash between sensitivities of race and gender will inevitably be magnified. Who is more offended? Women or Blacks? In New Hampshire it was women, who protectively rallied around an emotional Hillary Clinton who has been unfairly beaten up by the boys.
Now the focus is turning to the sensitivities of African Americans, who are offended by the subtle racial digs of the Clinton campaign. The political backlash of "denigrating women," is being replaced by a backlash against "denigrating African American." Thus the furor over whispers about Obama's teenage drug use and Bill Clinton's comment that Obama's campaign was a "fairytale."
Hillary is accused of dissing Martin Luther King, Jr. by giving too much credit to Lyndon Johnson for civil rights legislation, a hair-splitting distinction that is described in apocalyptic terms by commentators who now focus on potential backlash from black voters.
But this backlash could further complicate Obama's path to the nomination. Until now, to use Shelby Steele's memorable phrase, Obama has been perceived a racial bargainer.
Because Obama is a "natural-born bargainer," writes Steele, Obama is a far more plausible candidate than "challengers" like Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson who "never give whites the benefit of the doubt." But the return of the "race card" to the campaign may in turn magnify public perceptions of Obama's "blackness" which will further polarize opinion.
And it will leave white liberals facing the dilemma of dueling victimisms.
The white liberals who will decide the Democratic race are genuinely excited about the prospect of an African-American elected president. They are equally, if not more, desperate not to be considered racist. But never underestimate the ability of a liberal to rationalize.
On the one hand they yearn to prove themselves racially virtuous; on the other hand is their conviction that other less enlightened Americans can't be trusted to give a black candidate a fair shake. On the one hand they claim to be champions of minorities; on the other they have developed a reflexive instinct to protect rather than promote minorities.
But won't guilty white liberals turn to Obama as a sacrament of racial absolution? Not necessarily.
Deep down, guilty white liberals feel guilty about other people's attitudes and behavior, not their own. To the contrary they are smugly certain of their own racial virtue; in fact, (they will tell themselves) they care so deeply about black people that they feel an obligation to protect them from an unenlightened electorate. Don't be surprised if many white liberals end up voting against Obama, while telling themselves they are doing it because they are so supportive of minority aspirations.
That's Obama's racial problem.