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The New York Sun


Not Battling Racism

April 24, 2008

By John H. McWhorter

There are going to be books about this Democratic campaign. Presumably, a few will address a staple question pundits are to attend to these days: "the role of race in the campaign."

What people really mean by that usually is the role of racism: the thinking person is supposed to be dutifully watching for evidence that white people are "not ready" for a black president, or that criticisms from Mr. Obama's opposition are rooted in racism.

What seems to almost frustrate some is that the answer to the question as to what role racism has played in this campaign is: none whatsoever.

Already many are wondering whether Mr. Obama's inability to "close the deal," as Mrs. Clinton has put it, with less educated whites indicates that they don't like black people. To conclude that racism is the issue here is, however, reflexive and even lazy.

What we are seeing is that to whites of this stratum, there is nothing especially magic about Mr. Obama. That is, a considerable amount of Mr. Obama's appeal is based on his charisma, his air of "freshness," and so on. And yes, a considerable part of that is his color. I have written this before and will write it again: many white voters are stimulated by the idea of voting for a black candidate for president, as a gesture toward getting past America's racist past.

People isolating that sentence as evidence that I oppose Mr. Obama's candidacy will be neglecting countless columns I have written supporting him in this space. Nevertheless, anyone who claims that he would be where he is now if he were white is exerting the same kind of mental gymnastics as someone who claims "I don't see race." Mr. Obama's color gave a boost to an interesting and qualified candidate and, well, here we are.

But that boost, it would seem, came mostly from educated, collegetown sorts. To this crowd, attendance to the fact that racism still exists, policing themselves for remnants of it, and taking especial delight in diversity are more important than to most blue-collar, small-town whites. That is, opposition to racism as a high priority is, as the blog has it, "Stuff White People Like," the idea being white people of a certain demographic.

This does not mean that the whites in Pennsylvania don't like black people, are "not ready" for a black president, or are evidence of racism "lurking beneath the surface of polite discussion." It simply means that these people are evaluating Mr. Obama in a neutral way, and find Ms. Clinton more experienced, better prepared to steward a nation at war, and perhaps even having paid her dues in a way that Mr. Obama has not.

To insist that this is about racism is logically unnecessary, and even musing that racism might "play some part" is idle. How could we ever know, and more importantly, what would be the benefit of finding out, when we have so much else on our plates?

After all, if racism were the issue here, it would not, as many would have it, be yet another indication from the campaign that bigotry still rules in America. It would be the very first indication.

Bill Clinton, for example, is correct this week in dismissing the idea that his comparison of Mr. Obama's South Carolina win to Jesse Jackson's was racist. At that time, no one could have predicted how well Mr. Obama was going to do with white voters in state after state, such that Mr. Clinton's putting it on the table that Obamamania would stay mainly a black thing was reasonable. An inaccurate prediction, as it turned out, but at that time, eminently reasonable.

Mrs. Clinton's observation that Lyndon Johnson got the Civil Rights Act passed was correct, despite what she and all of us know about the path breaking legacy of Martin Luther King. Geraldine Ferraro's statement of the painfully obvious fact that Mr. Obama's color has helped him rise to prominence was no more racist than if she had said the sky was blue.

What Pennsylvania, and Ohio, have shown is that when Mr. Obama runs against John McCain, preacherly cadences and uplifting rhetoric about unity will not sway white voters for whom "the black thing" is not as high on their list as it is for Blue America sorts. What will be important is whether what Mr. Obama would do in office would be more beneficial than what Senator Mc-Cain would do, period.

Given what a masterful speech writer Mr. Obama proved himself to be a month ago, it will be interesting to see how he will reach the kinds of voters he has so far failed to ignite. In doing so, however, he will not be battling racism. He will be simply making a case for himself as a person.

That excites me, given that this would have been impossible of a black candidate as recently as 20 years ago. Sniffing around for racism, in this case, is refusing to admit when a battle has been won.

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