Considering that less than one half of one percent of the population has registered an official vote in the 2008 presidential election, America sure is in a self-congratulatory mood. Barack Obama's triumph over John Edwards and Hillary Clinton in predominantly white Iowa has motivated more than one victory lap from pundits on both the left and right. Aside from ignoring the fact that Jesse Jackson won a handful of primaries and caucuses in 1988 (including a few Southern states and Michigan), the TV blabbers celebrating our country's defeat of racism have allowed a nasty side to emerge, both from some of the gasbag commentators themselves and from some of their less enlightened fans.
By now, all of you have probably read or heard somebody make the facile contrast between Senator Obama and the Reverends Jackson and Al Sharpton. See, they tell us, we don't judge by the color of the skin, as Dr. King once said (having no idea how later generations would pervert his words), but by the content of the character. That's why we reject the Revs and support Barack, and by "we", of course, we mean several thousand people in Iowa. Give us the right African American and we'll show you just how un-racist we really are!
Glenn Beck, as usual, is among the worst. He could not stop crowing yesterday on his radio show about America's Victory Over Racism on January 3. He further felt compelled to note that while white Iowans, including women, rejected (narrowly) the white and female candidates in favor of Obama, their black counterparts cast nearly three-quarters of their vote in favor of the African American winner. This, Beck suggested, shows who is really obsessed by race. He didn't exactly say it, but he didn’t need to: black Americans need to get over it. (When a strong majority of white males rejects Obama in November, assuming he's the Democratic nominee, I expect a full retraction from Beck. Well, no I really don't.)
Let's take a step back and acknowledge that the prospect of an African American presidential candidate with a serious shot at his party's nomination is, in fact, a wonderful moment. Those of us who can think back to the terrible days of police dogs and water cannons and unfettered public use of the "n" word would never have dared to guess back in the 1960s that a black man would be a frontrunner for the presidency. We have, obviously, come a long way from that awful time.
But the success of one man, however inspiring, does not give us the right to claim victory. Seventy years ago, white America prayed in their segregated churches that Joe Louis, the "Brown Bomber", would strike a blow against Hitler by defeating his German rival, Max Schmelling, in a boxing match. They cheered him lustily when he did. A sports journalist even wrote that "Joe Louis is a credit to his race—the human race." But despite the country's veneration of this one man, American apartheid continued apace for another generation. Many of the same people who wept for joy when Schmelling hit the canvas went on to boo Jackie Robinson's entry into major league baseball; to curse the young children and teenagers attempting to integrate schools throughout the South and elsewhere; to angrily demand that Muhammad Ali be sent to prison for resisting the draft; and to riot in Boston when a federal judge demanded, twenty years after Brown v. Board, that school segregation finally end in liberal Massachusetts.
Today, as we celebrate Obama's victory in Iowa and likely win in New Hampshire, neighborhood segregation continues from coast to coast, leading to schools that are nearly as racially separate today as they were in the days of Joe Louis. Prison populations show a proportional racial disparity that should embarrass any country founded on the ringing words of Thomas Jefferson (who was himself, of course, a slave owner). Disparate policing practices have led to the creation of a term, "Driving While Black", that achieved its coinage less than two decades ago. And a recent report revealed that doctors even allocate pain medication based on the race of the patient, with white sufferers more likely to be provided with sufficient relief.
More disturbingly, the country and its punditocracy seem to have cut a one-sided deal with Senator Obama, under which he will continue to be taken seriously only if he doesn't play the "race card", a thinly coded phrase meaning that the topics of affirmative action, poverty, segregation, and discrimination are off limits. Hillary Clinton can speak of women's issues. Any white male candidate is free to decry the impact of "reverse discrimination" on Caucasian men. Christian conservatives like Mike Huckabee are expected to emphasize the role of religion in their lives and in their thoughts. But if Barack Obama should ever dare to suggest that the status of African Americans should be a major campaign issue, he will suddenly fall from being "our" candidate to being "their" candidate, and he will be decried from CNN to MSNBC to Fox News as a suddenly divisive force in the campaign.
Should he win the Democratic nomination for president, Obama can anticipate not only the usual Republican attacks on his character and ideology, but also the sort of veiled references that refute the notion that racism in America has been vanquished. Expect, for example, that crime will suddenly become a salient national issue for the first time in maybe a dozen years. Anything Obama ever did as an Illinois legislator on behalf of criminal suspects or in opposition to capital punishment will be dissected and Willie Hortonized. Not only will he be branded a tax and spend liberal, but the words welfare and dependence will also be thrown about. Bill Clinton only had to denigrate Sister Souljah once; Barack Obama will be expected to do so every time. And the whispers about his supposedly Muslim background, not to mention his middle name of Hussein, will continue to circulate, with Republicans wondering out loud if he has the strength and commitment to take on the Islamofascists. In short, anyone who doesn't think that the issues of race and ethnicity will be all over the general election campaign has not been paying attention to American politics over the last—I don't know—230 years.
This is, and I hope it is obvious, not an argument for abandoning Obama in favor of a "safer" candidate. If we learned anything from 2000 and 2004, it is that no Democrat will be exempt from the all-out, slanderous attacks of the hit machine. Nobody is more white bread than John Kerry, but that didn't stop them from effectively swiftboating him. Hillary Clinton and John Edwards might be assailed in a different way and from a slightly different direction, but they will be no less burdened by the smears. Democrats should choose Obama if they believe he will be the best president, irrespective of what awaits him in September. In today's cutthroat politics, there is no "safe" candidate.
Regardless, we should stop patting ourselves on the back with quite so much enthusiasm. Barack Obama's breakthrough is obviously a positive development in the course of American history, something that could not have been imagined a generation ago. It does not, however, clean the slate on racial issues in the United States. We will know that we are approaching that threshold when a viable black candidate can incorporate specific appeals to African American equality into his or her standard stump speech and nobody suggests that any sort of card is being played.