Supporting Obama: Should Race Be a Factor?

Jeff Alworth

Let us start with the fact, and work our way back from there: one of the reasons I support Barack Obama--not the main reason or even one of the top five, but one of the reasons--is because he's black.  For a lot people, this is an obvious fact and factor--how could you ignore such a thing?  But I know that to reverse the equation, to say that the reason I wasn't voting for Obama was his race, this would not be cool.  So why is it cool only when it's a factor in my support of him?  Didn't King long to have an America where people were judged by the content of the character, not the color of their skin--even if it was a favorable judgment?

Is it possible to include race as a factor for voting for Obama without succumbing to the same paradigm that a racist might use to vote against him?  I think the answer is yes.

To begin with, the issue of race exists in a deep context in America, and it's not possible to remove it by force of will from this election.  Ignoring race means ignoring the context, which is real and present.  The obscene legacy of slavery, lynchings, and segregation is in our rear-view mirror, and the resulting fractured society is our present.  This is the reality.

Because of this, when a black person enters a formerly-white arena for the first time, it always calls up the memory of this historical stain.  The achievement itself is regarded as only half the picture.  Take entertainment as one example.  In 2002, Denzel Washington was up for an Oscar for Best Actor, and he got a huge amount of attention--for being black.  He had already won a supporting Oscar, and had been nominated for two other lead actor awards.  Yet it was still his race that was the story's headline: "Oscar Triumph for Black Actors."  [BBC] 

And of course, race is a factor whether a black candidate is running for election or not.  One of the three main candidates on the Democratic side is a white Southerner.  If Obama is an obvious reminder of America's history, Edwards is a more subtle one.  For my entire life, conventional wisdom has held that Southerners make good Democratic presidents.  Why would that be?  The history of the Democratic party mirrors that of the country, and Democratic support in the South is a vestige of our horrible past.  Getting elected President has meant dancing a tango with our past.

On the GOP side, Fred Thompson is reliably described as "presidential" because of his sonorous voice and stern conservatism; surely the context surrounding the candidacy of an authoritarian Southern white man can't be ignored.  Race is a part of elections whether we recognize it or not.

Of course, there are more mundane reasons why race is important.  America is governed largely by privileged white men, predominantly from the South.  Electing a black man who has lived in Asia, Hawaii, and Chicago will inevitably bring a new perspective to leadership.  For the bulk of Americans, there are a number of ways in which Obama's life experiences are closer to their own than to rich Southerners, never mind race.  Surely that's a valuable consideration.

It isn't exactly true that King said we should ignore race--in his "I have a dream" speech, he longed for a time in the future beyond judgments based on race.  We're not there yet.  One of the reasons I think Obama's candidacy is important is precisely because his election may nudge us closer to King's dream.  Look at what happened in this year's Oscar race: three black actors were considered front-runners for awards and when two won no one thought to mention race.  Contexts can change quickly.

When race is brought into elections, the phrase "identity politics" often enters the discussion like a shadow from the past.  According to this view, considering race is a tribal act that divides Americans. But this is an obviously specious argument.  It's possible to use race to split and segregate, but for most people, the intention is the opposite. The way out of this thicket of history and context is not to ignore race, but to see it for what it is.  If we elect Barack Obama in 2008, our troubled relationship with race will change irrevocably and for the better.  How could I ignore that fact when considering a candidates?

[Postscipt: Two weeks ago, I made the case for Obama on the issues, politics, electability and other factors.  They constitute the main case for Obama.]


  • (Show?)

    "If we elect Barack Obama in 2008, our troubled relationship with race will change irrevocably and for the better. "

    Not necessarily, if he turns out to suck.

    I worried that my own support of Obama in recent months was rooted in racial politics to a certain extent; the fact that currently I'm somewhere between John Edwards and Bill Richardson either means my interest in a black politician was too weak to keep me from souring a bit on Obama...or it means that his race was my prime mover for supporting him at first, absent an analysis of positions and/or campaign style.

    The experience, in any case, leads me to answer your question with a simple "No."

  • Matthew Sutton (unverified)

    I think you have to consider every aspect of the candidates, including but not limited to their personal traits, attributes, character, background and life experience.

    With Senator Obama, his race is an added plus for many of the reasons you mentioned. Of course, this "added plus" would be irrelevant if he didn't also have great foresight, vision, judgment, soundness on the issues, and the ability to lead and inspire people.

    In other words, a presidential candidate needs to be qualified to hold the office irrespective of race. But if the candidate could also create an important "first" for our beleaguered Country, by becoming the first black or biracial president, breaking down barriers and inspiring all of us, that is something that we could all be truly proud of. This would show that our Country is moving forward, not backwards, and that a new era of hope and change has been entered.

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    Race and gender has been a factor for me in almost all the elections I've voted in since I could make a decent argument why it does matter. For me, I have always lived a life where almost no one that looked like me had any position of power, and I mean power in all contexts. No Black teachers in schools until high school - and I didn't have class with any of them. No mayor, governor, president. No women in the magazines that I could see as Black or Latina and beautiful, which is think is one of the reasons my mother never let me have them.

    As I've said here before, an ongoing conversation on the impact of race stalled and has never been picked up in a meaningful way on a country wide stage. We fail to acknowledge it even in our state. It still doesn't seem to be happening, even with Sen. Obama and Gov. Richardson in the presidential race and plenty of room for a thoughtful start.

    The support of candidates that are not White males always have caveats: Is the person smart enough, traveled enough, experienced enough, presents enough examples? There is a virtually complete absence of such questions otherwise. Someone should have asked those questions of some of our electeds in Salem and on the national stage.

    So, the answer to your question, Jeff, from my point of view, is yes, race should be a factor. Sen. Obama has to be smarter, work harder, present better and actively stay on the right side of things to be considered EQUAL to his peers. This is a challenge that many women and people of color go through constantly. I think this is the scrutiny he will face if he makes it through his current honeymoon phase. Its important for us to elect a person who is qualified to lead our country after the disaster who is in the White House now. We are lucky to have a variety of candidates who can do the job, but let us not question harder the persons of color when the other candidates seem to lack this thing called "substance" as well.

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    Karol, I appreciate what you're saying, but I think it should be pointed out that Obama's challenge in establishing that he has enough experience is not merely due to his race (although I fully agree that the ferocity of the attacks is related to race.)

    In my view, Obama has effectively zero statewide campaign experience; the last-minute importing of Keyes into his race doesn't count for much. This strikes me as a liability in the general election, where the attacks will be extreme. Of course, his demeanor seems excellent, and well-suited to fending off attacks with grace and dignity; no doubt a result of his invaluable experience in fighting against bigotry directed at him. So he might be fine on that count; how the rest of the primary goes will have a big influence on my opinion.

    But his limited job experience seems a little more troubling to me. One term in the Senate, overshadowed entirely by speculation about his presidential ambitions, seems minimal. Edwards has the same liability. But this part seems very real to me; not at all worth writing him off, but worth paying very careful attention to how he evolves as convincing and authoritative leader.

    Legislative experience, and highly local experience like Mayor of Cleveland, seem thin for an executive position, and so there are only three Democratic candidates for whom experience is not a major concern for me: Clinton (with extensive White House experience), Richardson (a governor), and Gravel (whose tenure in the Senate sounds pretty distinguished.)

    I'll be watching all the others closely as I try to make up my mind.

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    That "invaluable experience" bit came out all wrong. It's contemptible that he had to fight those battles, but in the process, he appears to have turned a liability into an asset. That speaks very well of his character. I don't think my words above expressed that at all.

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    Torrid, no one should back Obama solely because he's black, though I don't follow your logical train to a no to my question, which was about considering race as one positive reason to support him.

    Pete, Obama's experience deficit is overblown. I'm afraid this arises more from media characterization than fact. In my argument for Obama, I argued that his experience was actually a plus:

    [H]is political experience is both broad and deep, if mostly unknown to national voters. Before becoming a US Senator, he was an Illinois State Senator for eight years. He was an active leader in the legislature, chairing the Public Health and Welfare Committee, and working to pass legislation aimed at helping the working poor, increasing AIDS prevention spending, and banning racial profiling. He also worked on a health insurance bill that didn't pass. After college, he worked as a community organizer in Chicago and then went on to Harvard, where he graduated magna cum laude and became the president of the Harvard Law Review. At the University of Chicago (in Hyde Park, the district he represented), he was a Constitutional law professor and worked for a civil rights firm. All of this happened outside the flashing lights of the national press, but the truth remains that he was teaching law before George W. Bush became governor of Texas. He's got more experience in politics than either Rudy Giuliani or Mitt Romney, neither of whom are regularly criticized for being underqualified.
  • Buckman Res (unverified)

    Hate to be the one to break this to you but considering a candidate’s skin color for any reason in an election is bigoted and, yes, racist. “I voted for him because he’s black” rings just as narrow-minded and senseless as “I’ll never vote for a black guy”.

    That sort of thinking is condescending to the candidate and perpetuates racism in the name of ameliorating it. It allows unscrupulous politicians to play the race card and manipulate those who hold some misplaced sense of guilt for past injustices which they had nothing to do with.

    There are lots of reasons to vote for Sen Obama but I’ll bet he’d be the first to say don’t make his skin color one of them.

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    Thanks, Jeff - that looks well worth exploring, and I must have missed it last time around. Don't have the time right now, but I will read up later.

  • truffula (unverified)

    So why is it cool only when it's a factor in my support of him?

    Who says it is "cool?" There is a line of reasoning out there about white Americans feeling some sort of need to support Obama because it proves (to themeselves or others) that they are not racist. Intended or not, the self-definition of "coolness" for supporting Obama supports that contention.

    The best conversation I have heard recently on this topic was between Melissa Harris-Lacewell (Princeton prof.) and Bill Moyers on his 18 May Journal.

  • Phil Johnson (unverified)

    As an employer you can't factor in race in a new hire...

    But you can in this case?

    Or is it that, Democrats still feel guility about dragging us through a civil war over their right to keep slaves? Speaking of slaves - one of my favorite high ranking Senate democrats is former KKK grand dragon Robert Byrd.

  • Eric Berg (unverified)

    Race, religion and class permiate nearly everything in this country. Especially politics. Anyone who denies this is dishonest or thier head in the sand.

    There's no shortage of material and discussion about Barack Obama's racial/family heritage: White mother. Muslim father from Kenya (not a descendent of American slaves; also brought up about Colin Powell when he considered running for president). Privleged upbringing (private schools, Columbia, Harvard Law). The convential wisdom is that Obama isn't as popular with African-American voters as he is with upper-middle class and creative class-type whites.

    'Identity politics' doesn't mean as much durng this presidential nomination race as it has in the past.

    Take Bill Richardson: Mexican mother. Childhood in Mexico. Privledged background not typical of most Latinos (or most Americans for that matter). May explain the lack of excitement with his campaign among Latino voters.

    Most of the progressive women I know aren't all that excited about Hillary Clinton, either.

    If the ballot for the primary were due today and I had changed my registration from non-affilliated to Democrat so I could vote in it - which I will - I'd vote for Obama. His race is a part of his story, it's a part of his appeal for many, I'm sure. I just think he's the best candidate, and more important, will make the best president. But John Edwards' working-class background, 'two Americas' and emphsis and endng poverty appeal to me more than Obama's race. Edwards is the only top-tier candidate who wasn't born into a family where an expensive, elite education appears to have been a birthright or expectation, at least.

    I digress.

    Unfortunately, there will always be bigots filling out ballot, but, in the end, Obama won't be elected or defeated because of his race. Richardson won't be elected or defeated because of his race. Hilary Clinton won't be elected or defeated because of her gender.

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    absolutely his ethnicity (i hate "race" which is a stupid and completely inaccurate term) matters to me. but before i got to that point, i had to decide he was qualified to be president (very much so) and that i could support him regardless of gender, skin color, etc. and i can.

    i am excited that we might elect an African-American president. what an amazing event given our country's long ugly history of rascism. i can say the same of electing a woman, except Clinton's politics are not as aligned with mine as Obama's. symbolism is a vital part of politics and governing, and like it or not, Obama's ethnicity is symbolic.

    the message to our own country, and to the world, when we elect Barack Obama will do much to repudiate the legacy of Bush. in both what he symbolizes and the politics he represents, i am excited to be supporting him. and looking forward to his visit to Seattle on Friday!!

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    There is a quite engaging 5-minute documentary at the Washington Post on the Obamas' swing through New Hampshire that I would heartily recommend to skeptics and fans alike. In particular, note how his wife Michelle fields a question at a town hall meeting. Another reason to support him!

    This Obama service announcement was furnished by ....

    (Seriously, I don't work for the guy.)

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    "Hate to be the one to break this to you but considering a candidate’s skin color for any reason in an election is bigoted and, yes, racist."

    That's a little tough for me to swallow, Buckman. I do take skin color and gender into account; these candidates take mine into account all the time. To pretend that fact isn't the case is ignoring the discussion of race (sorry TA), class and gender. I worked for a campaign where I was hired strictly because I was Black and the community needed to see that face. Did it diminish my ability? Absolutely not, but it did add that credibility that is STILL needed for people of color to feel like they are being represented SOMEWHERE. Personally, its not a strange concept to want to support someone who looks like me (Obama), speaks the language I was raised with (Richardson), or understands not being taken seriously as a woman (Clinton). It doesn't make me racist, sexist, or otherwise.

    I want to vote for the person who will lead us in the right direction. I have a choice between several great candidates and I will lean towards someone who relates to my own experience. I think many people do that, no matter the reasons - they vote for the face too, you know.

    If its "cool" to vote for Obama, then so be it! Once upon a time it was cool to be a Kennedy supporter - wait, it still is. Jeff, you are COOL...embrace it (wink).

  • andy (unverified)

    Yes, race is an important factor which why I'll be voting for a white guy in the elections. Preferably a middle aged white guy. Hopefully a multi-millionare also. I feel most comfortable around that crowd.

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    I worked for a campaign where I was hired strictly because I was Black and the community needed to see that face.

    Hey Karol, don't sell yourself short. You might have been hired in part because you are Black - but surely you were also hired because you were an effective spokesperson for your candidate. They chose YOU, not just the first random Black person wandering down the street.

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    Thanks Kari - but I don't know how right you are about the skill thing...I wasn't always the savvy politico you know and love now.

    But, the point remains, sometimes a familiar face makes one feel more committed to one candidate over another. I don't know if its right, wrong or otherwise. I don't think people of various colors' issues are all that different. But just look into any high school, group of friends walking or at a show, or shopping and you'll see something that I see: people migrate towards people that look like themselves. I'm not saying that I only vote for Blacks or Hispanics, but I do see the attraction in my own case.

  • Matthew Sutton (unverified)

    Well if anyone is interested in investigating this issue first hand, Barack Obama will be speaking at the Qwest Field Event Center, this Friday, June 1st at 5:30. Road trip? this is blueoregon

  • VR (unverified)

    If it is acceptable to use Race in the positive, than it is also acceptable to use it in the negative.

    Anyone who says they include race as one of Obama's "positives" should not complain if others include that as one of his "negatives".

    You cannot have it both ways. Either racism is bad or it isn't. There isn't a "sometimes racism is good" option.

    I contend that racism is a part of human nature, and exists everywhere on the planet and will never be "erased". All we can do is mitigate the impacts to the best of our ability.

    But the simple fact that the question about Obama comes up proves that racism is a factor no matter what people would like to think.

    Like here in Oregon, all of the "Cultural Diversity" license plates on the luxury sedans and SUVs driven by rich white people trying to say "See? I am not a racist. Please don't steal my car." Seriously, in the several years since the Oregon program was started - I think I have seen maybe 3 "cultural diversity" license plates on a car driven by a minority.

  • activist kaza (unverified)

    Re Obama's "race" and "experience":

    Inexperienced? Wrong. In fact, Obama's experience in growing up off the mainland and abroad makes him far more relevant and switched-on to the 21st centuruy global economy/cultural polarization etc. than any other candidate, by far!

    Race? "Black"? Wrong - Obama himself rejects this characterization (read his books) - acknowledges his mixed heritage and points us to a place in time where America should want to go, i.e. post-racial politics!

    For the real flavor of the man, I highly recommend his first book - the real autobiography of the early years. In it, I think you'll find a man uniquely qualified to lead - and absolutely nothing in his past to suggest "he'll suck" as President, Torrid Joe (uh, unlike the past of a certain incumbent resident of the WH)!

  • Doug Dingus (unverified)

    No, race should not be a factor, but it happens to be a factor with a significant number of people. You won't hear it openly, but in small group discussions, or among friends, it happens. It happens a fair amount, from my personal experience.

    It happens enough to make him unelectable and that's really sad.

    (and yes I say something about it)

    For me personally, I prefer Edwards as he has demonstrated the better leadership skills so far. This may well be an artifact of him not currently holding office. If so, I'm not sure it's cause to dismiss him, given that we do need the leadership. If the others cannot do this, shouldn't we be passing on them anyway?

  • Orygunner (unverified)

    Gee, thanks for deleting my post Kari. The truth hurts, huh? Diversity is great, as long as everyone thinks exactly like you I guess. And it's much easier to throw dissenting opinions down the memory hole rather than try to refute them, huh?

    I'll leave y'all to your little liberal echo chamber. Feel free to continue congratulating yourselves on how non-racist you are because you choose your candidates using the same criteria as the Klan. There's no doublethink going on here, nope, none at all.....

  • Jon (unverified)

    As an employer you can't factor in race in a new hire...

    Um, thats incorrect. In fact, you are required to in some cases (like public projects). Its called Affirmative Action.

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