Could an Obama Presidency Hurt Black Americans?

John Blake, CNN, July 22, 2008

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But there are others who warn that an Obama presidency could hurt African-Americans. They say an Obama victory could cause white Americans to ignore entrenched racial divisions while claiming that America has reached the racial Promised Land.

Paul Street, author of the forthcoming book “Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics,” says Obama risks becoming an Oval Office version of talk-show host Oprah Winfrey. She and former Secretary of State Colin Powell are African-American figures whose popularity allows some white Americans to congratulate themselves for not being racist, he says

“They’re cited as proof that racism is no longer a significant barrier to black advancement and interracial equality,” Street said.

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“However, the suggestion that somehow Senator Obama’s campaign represents an easy shortcut is not realistic,” Shapiro [Nick Shapiro,an Obama spokesman] said in a statement. “Senator Obama believes that we still have a lot of work to do, and that’s not just true for the issues facing blacks or Latinos, but for women and other communities struggling to secure the basic necessities in life like jobs, housing, health care and quality education.”

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Any suggestion that an Obama presidential victory could set back race relations may seem odd or even inappropriate. His presidential campaign has been framed by many observers as a glowing example of America’s move to a “post-racial” society.

“Racial polarization used to be a dominating force in our politics, but we’re now a different, and better, country,” Paul Krugman, a New York Times columnist, wrote last month about Obama’s political rise.

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Yet there are a few political commentators who warn African-Americans that an Obama victory could be twisted to suppress the push for racial equality. Most of these commentators are African-American, but they also include white, Latino and conservative pundits.

These commentators say that there is a subliminal appeal to Obama’s presidential candidacy that has been ignored. Obama doesn’t just represent change; he represents atonement for America’s ugly racial past for others, they say.

Steve Sailer, a columnist for The American Conservative magazine, wrote last year that some whites who support Obama aren’t driven primarily by a desire for change.

They want something else Obama offers them: “White Guilt Repellent,” he wrote.

“So many whites want to be able to say, ‘I’m not one of them, those bad whites. . .&nsbp;. Hey, I voted for a black guy for president,’” Sailer wrote.

Sailer cited another reason why many whites want Obama as president:

“They hope that when a black finally moves into the White House, it will prove to African-Americans, once and for all, that white animus isn’t the cause of their troubles. All blacks have to do is to act like President Obama—and their problems will be over.”

Glen Ford, executive editor of the online journal blackagendareport.com, offered some white Americans a free solution to the race problem: “Millions of whites came to believe Obama could solve the ‘race problem’ by his mere presence, at no cost to their own notions of skin privilege,” Ford wrote in an essay in January.

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It could actually get worse for poor African-Americans, [Andra Gillespie, an assistant professor at Emory University’s political science department] says.

“People could say if Barack [Obama] can succeed and someone can’t get off of the stoops in the hood, it’s their fault, and it has nothing to do with systemic racism,” Gillespie said.

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Obama has responded to such criticisms before. In his “A More Perfect Union” speech in March, he dismissed claims that his candidacy was fueled by the desire “to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap.”

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Despite what Obama has said, his presidency could provoke a black backlash because the expectations are so high, others say.

African-Americans who would expect a President Obama to be a vigorous advocate for their cause may be disappointed by Obama’s approach to race if he becomes president, some say.

Author Street says Obama may be a symbol of bold racial change but he is personally cautious about race. A President Obama won’t want to appear to favor blacks, because he might lose political support if he appears as the “angry black man” in the White House.

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African-Americans may also be disappointed by an Obama presidency because they may have forgotten what Obama is: a politician, says David Sirota, author of “The Uprising,” a book that examines how populist movements in America shape public policy changes.

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“Politicians, even the best-intentioned ones, are weather vanes,” Sirota said. “If the wind isn’t blowing in the right direction, they will perpetuate the status quo.”

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