Jim Sleeper: Obama's Way Out of the Race Trap

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, is the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York and Liberal Racism.]

Ed Kilgore's fascinating and widely read post here at TPM examines Barack Obama's prospects after the Pennsylvania primary by comparing Obama in some ways to George McGovern and proposing, with commenters, a number of strategic alternatives.

The discussion is refreshing but also disconcerting, because, not once in the post or in the 15 astute comments I'd read by the time I wrote this is there any mention that Obama is black. (One commenter did note that Obama took 90% of the black Pennsylvania primary vote, but that's it.)

It's refreshing because Obama's self-understanding and his campaign give race its due while pointing beyond it. But it's also pretty strange to see no mention of race in a discussion of Obama's prospects just after Pennsylvania reminded us of racism's depth and obstinacy among working-class whites in industrial states -- an obstinacy I illustrated here shortly before the primary.

Nixon carried the industrial states against McGovern in 1972, except Massachusetts, not only because he was the incumbent but because too much was being made of race then, in the streets and in McGovernites' color-coding of the Democratic convention. Subtle appeals to racist backlash worked. And McGovern wasn't even black.

The Clintons have made a lot of race this year, too, reminding everyone that Obama is black -- from Bill's bringing up Jesse Jackson's past South Carolina victory when Obama won there, to Sean Wilentz's falsely accusing Obamaites of playing the race card, to Hillary's jumping into the Rev. Wright loop a week late, and so on.

But there's a way that Obama could turn what the Clintons and some Republicans consider a winning issue into a cornerstone of his own strong victory.

So writes Richard Kahlenberg, who has long campaigned for a shift from race-based affirmative-action to class-based preferences that might mitigate the growing inequalities that have left working whites, as someone put it, bitter.

In the current (April 25) Chronicle of Higher Education, Kahlenberg reprises some racial history to argue that Barack Obama's candidacy could show"how to remedy the history of discrimination.. without creating new inequities and divisions. Hillary Rodham Clinton has been a strong supporter of race-and gender-based affirmative acion preferences and has shown little openness to new ideas on that front.

"By contrast, Obama... emphasizes [as did Martin Luther King, Jr.] common ground among races.... Nothing would galvanize white working-class voters more than a rejection of... racial preferences in favor of King's Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged.

"Obama appears open to that approach. In his Philadelphia speech,.... he observed: 'Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race...' Their resentment builds 'when they hear that an African-American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed.' He warned against seeing those resentments as 'misguided or even racist' without understanding that they are 'grounded in legitimate concerns.'

"Moreover, in response to a reporter's question last May, Obama said that his own relatively privileged girls don't deserve affirmative-action preferences, but poor minority and white students do. Emphasizing class would remove such preferences for upper-income members of minority groups -- treatment that Obama concedes makes little sense -- and would, for the first time in 40 years, benefit the vast majority of working-class black people who have been helped little by affirmative action programs....

"It also would be politically popular: While racial preferences are strongly opposed by Americans, income-based preferences are supported by a two-to-one margin.The move would be transformative," Kahlenberg concludes,"recapturing not only the colorblind character of King's vision but also its aggressive assault on class inequality."

But since Obama holds the views Kahlenberg reports, why don't working-class whites know it?

One reason they don't is that some can't see far enough past Obama's blackness to hear anything he's saying. But another is that Obama hasn't spoken all that clearly against racial preferences. No surprise there: He has to play the hand he's been dealt as a black man running for president: He needs to avoid igniting racial controversies. He's understandably reluctant to descend to what might seem like pandering to racists, drawing the inevitable assaults from black Clinton"race industry" loyalists and the worst of the so-called civil-rights establishment.

Another reason whites haven't heard Obama on this is that the Clintons do remind whites that he is black, and they don't take issue with him on racial preferences. After all, the more openly the Clintons defended racial preferences, the more white votes Hillary would lose.

They'd rather remind us that Bill stagily rebuked Sister Souljah (who deserved it) and Jesse Jackson while styling himself a"New Democrat" in 1992. That worked for them then, too, even though no one black was running.

The Clintons' very real racism is the underside of their penitential, preferential color-coding -- a highly symbolic, cheap, and hypocritical handling of race that Obama opposes. The irony and tragedy is that, as I showed yesterday, playing the race card puts Clinton hand-in-glove with those Republicans who endorse her now only because they want to have her to demolish in the fall.

It's a reasonable risk now for Obama to flush her out on this issue of preferences and compulsive color-coding. No one could do it more truthfully or eloquently than he. Whites would hear him, for sure. Blacks wouldn't desert him, because they'd catch every nuance in his presentation.

He might lose a few upscale white liberals who like to indulge racial symbolism in order to feel good about their privileged selves far more than they'd like to make the sacrifices and do the heavily lifting that equality of opportunity really requires. But it's unlikely they'd desert him for Clinton now, and he'd gain tremendous credibility among working-class whites for being substantively trans-racial, in ways that actually benefit them, rather than symbolically trans-racial in color-coded gestures that make the pursuit of equality seem a zero-sum game.

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