A White woman, responding to a column I had written about Barack Obama, complained that inasmuch as Obama is biracial, he should not be considered an African-American. However, when Obma is depicted in a bad light, he is quickly categorized as a Black man and no one seems to mind.
Such are the complexities of race in America. And in America, race still matters. And it matters even when a biracial candidate seeks to run a non-racial campaign. If he doesn't inject the issue of race, it will be injected for him.
The issue of Newsweek that went on sale Monday noted, "The most successful presidents have been open and hopeful, sunny and optimistic about the promise of American equality and opportunity. But there has long been a dark side to democratic politics, a willingness to play on prejudice, to get men and women to vote their fears and not their hopes. Those prejudices fade and seem to die down, but they never quite go away. They remain embers for cunning political operatives to fan into flames."
The issue contained several stories that approached the race issue from several angles. I was fascinated by polling data in the cover story. In a Newsweek poll, 3 percent of Whites interviewed said Obama's race made them less likely to vote for him. But almost a quarter – 19 percent – declared that the country is not ready to elect an African-American president. So, that 3 percent figure is probably grossly understated.
Even more telling, 53 percent of voters believe "some" or "most" voters "have reservations about voting for a Black candidate that they are not willing to express. In Pennsylvania, 12 percent of Whites were willing to admit that race was a factor in their votes.
Ellis Cose wrote, "In an analysis of the Pennsylvania results, Gary Langer, ABC's director of polling, points out that only 54 percent of those White Democrats who said race was important would support Obama instead of John McCain. The rest said they would either vote for McCain—or not at all. Race, Langer notes, operated in a fundamentally different way than gender. Voters who said the gender of the candidate was important seemed much less likely to choose their gender preference over their party."
The cover story, written by Evan Thomas, Holly Bailey and Richard Wolffe, questioned how Hillary Clinton, who attended an elite women's college (Wellesley) before enrolling in Yale Law School, could get away with calling Obama an elitist.
It observed, "What is just weird is this: how can it be that a Black man running for president is accused of being too elitist? For the first century of the nation's existence, Blacks were kept in chains. For the next century, they were sent to the back of the bus and kept away from Whites-only lunch counters and restrooms throughout the South—much less allowed to join the White elite in their schools and clubs and prestigious institutions. Then, starting in the 1960s, American society began to make a concerted effort to open up those doors. Barack Obama is not so much the beneficiary of that effort as the proof that Blacks can make it on their own, if given the chance. He was, despite a modest upbringing, elected editor of the Harvard Law Review, a position at the very tip of the meritocratic ziggurat."
A column by Jonathan Alter tries to minimize the issue of race, arguing, "Opposition to him is not so much old-fashioned racism as fear of the 'other,' with the subtext not just our tortured racial history, but tangled views of class and patriotism." However, Alter offers no proof that this has less to do with race than "other."
Obama is being dismissed as unpatriotic in some quarters because he does not wear an American flag on his lapel. In case you haven't noticed, none of the three remaining presidential candidates don such lapels.
Alter did make this point: "Hillary has echoed Fox News's guilty-by-association tactics – linking Obama to people he barely knows like Louis Farrakhan and William Ayers. The sad irony is that these are the same attacks used against her husband in the elections of the 1990s."
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach.