Barack Obama may not be the first African American to run for president, but he is certainly the first who is being taken seriously. When the media’s anointed one lost narrowly in New Hampshire following his shock victory in Iowa, and after having a clear lead over Hillary Clinton in the days before polling, it was almost as if somebody had died. Not only were the pollsters humiliated, but the TV, radio and newspaper commentators who had touted his presidential ambitions were hugely embarrassed. Having declared Obama as the Democratic candidate sans pareil, they suddenly discovered that there was life in the Clinton campaign yet, and that this primary season was to be a real contest.
What has changed that allows an African American to be a serious candidate? Does it mean the end of race as a political issue in American politics, or is something else afoot?
Obama follows in the footsteps of Dick Gregory (1968), Shirley Chisholm (1972), Jesse Jackson (1984 and 1988) and Reverend Al Sharpton (2004) in challenging for the presidency. Chisholm and Jackson made a decent showing of it, but none were near being nominated.
Obama’s campaign got off to a slow start. He failed to gain early support among blacks, but that was largely due to the fact that the junior senator from Illinois had less name recognition than the junior senator from New York. That’s hardly surprising, given Hillary Clinton’s provenance. But once he became the media darling, and the subject of a pseudo-coronation as the man who could orate America back to pre-eminence, that all changed.
Obama has had to work hard to gain support from the old-school black leaders, and in some cases has not tried too hard. Some of them derided Obama for not being black enough. Ever the insider, Clinton quickly gained support from the traditional powerhouses in the Democratic machine, civil rights leader Andrew Young, Congressman John Lewis from Georgia, business leader Vernon Jordan, basketball star Magic Johnson, music producer Quincy Jones and others. Meanwhile, Obama has gone out of his way to court non-traditional black leaders. Not for him the Al Sharptons and religious black leaders from the South. Oprah, Jay Z and Kanye West are more his style. This is a somewhat dangerous strategy, given that young people are not historically great at turning out to vote. However, the excitement about his candidacy is palpable, and dinner-party conversations about him verge on the hagiographic, among young and not-so-young liberal Democrats, black and white.
Like all other sections of society, blacks want their guy to win, and if they perceive that Obama can carry the day will support him. If it appears that Clinton will carry the day, then she will get their support. The reality is that come November, blacks will overwhelmingly support the Democratic candidate. Many strategists are convinced America has moved on from looking at a candidate’s colour when deciding for whom to vote. Just as Oprah, Jay-Z and Kanye West have huge numbers of white fans, so does Obama. As in any other election in any country, there are some voters who will never vote for a woman or a minority candidate. But as David Bositis, of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, told the New Yorker: ‘It’s not that white people are not going to vote for a black candidate. That is so yesterday.’ (6)
Bositis is right. A significant majority of people do look far beyond a candidate’s race or gender when deciding whether to vote for him or her. But Obama’s candidacy reflects a lot more than that. Many white liberals feel that his success in coming this far—and especially if he wins—tells us so much about how the United States feels about itself. David Greenberg called him the ‘great white hope’, and quoted social critic John McWhorter as saying: ‘What gives people a jolt in their gut about the idea of President Obama is the idea that it would be a ringing symbol that racism no longer rules our land.’ (7)
The reality is that white America has more invested in this candidate than does black America.
Given the way the campaign has been run so far, it’s a bizarre thought that if Clinton wins, she will be more beholden to African Americans than Obama will be if he wins. She will owe them in a way that Obama will never do. If Obama is the candidate, we can safely expect black Americans to vote in unprecedented numbers, but he will owe them nothing because he is black. Hillary, on the other hand, while she may not have to rely on them to win the presidency if she is the eventual candidate, will need many black votes to beat Obama in the first place, so will owe them big time.
The fact is that Obama’s race matters more to whites than it does to blacks. Race is still a huge issue in America, but in a very different way than before. Today, white liberals have more invested in Obama than do African Americans. And for that reason, if he is not the eventual nominee it will hurt them. But not as much as if he is the nominee and falls to some no-mark Republican. That, for liberals, will confirm the endemic racism they see everywhere, ignoring the fact that it is Obama’s race, not his qualities as a leader, that they most love about him themselves.