Sen. Barack Obama’s victory, we are told by the cheering sections, was a great victory for the American dream. Racism may well be in retreat. In the immortal words of Humphrey Bogart: Not so fast, Louis. The United States looks pretty good now—for a change. What if Obama is defeated? The whole world and most African Americans will scream “racism!” Better not to try at all than to try and fail.
In fact, only a little more than half of the Democratic voters chose the senator from Illinois as their candidate. Were the other voters racist? Influenced by racism? Inclined to racism, which they hide even from themselves? Surely all of these factors were at work, but it is virtually impossible with the current research technology to sort them out. Moreover, is the voter a bigot who says—to himself or others—”He’s too young for it,” “I don’t know anything about him,” “He’s an elitist,” “He’s just a lot of fancy talk,” “The country isn’t ready for a man like that,” “He’s weak in his support of Israel,” “He’s Muslim, possibly the anti-Christ!” Are these hints of lurking prejudice? Are the voters of regular members of the Democratic coalition—Hispanics and union members—against Obama partly because of racism?
How many of the male readers of this column who are habitues of bars, locker rooms, commuter train bull sessions, pool rooms and men’s clubs have not heard the indigenous racial slurs of such environments applied to Obama?
And surely some of the explicit chatter during the campaign was racist, especially the obsession with the various clergy who mounted the pulpit of his church. By what stretch of sick logic could the candidate be responsible for what his clergy said and did?
The point is that racism permeates American society and hides itself under many different disguises. The nomination of an African-American candidate was a near-miracle. Only the innocent and the naive think that the November election will not be about race.
Race will silently trump the war, the economy, the cost of gasoline, the disgust with President Bush. One may wish that it will not be so, that if Obama loses it will not be because of the color of his skin but because the country genuinely wants another Republican administration.