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Jim Sleeper: My Almost-Hidden Stake in an Obama Win

Roundup: Historians' Take




[Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, is author of The Closest of Strangers (Norton 1989) and Liberal Racism (Viking 1997). Homepage and feature photography by Bbsrock (wikimedia commons / creative commons). ]

Some people are still wondering whether Barack Obama will be flummoxed on Nov. 4 by the so-called "Bradley Effect." Maybe, maybe not, but that we're even debating it shows that much has changed for the better, as I note in a short commentary just posted at "Things No One Talks About," in Dissent magazine.

What I don't talk about even there is that some of us were heralding this change even before we'd heard of Obama, way back when some of his biggest current backers were claiming that prospects like his could never materialize, and even that they shouldn't, because who needs a deracinated neo-liberal? The struggles behind his struggle can be quickly sketched, but they were hard-won, and worth knowing about.

So let's glance back 15 or 20 years, to when contests involving even only white candidates were shadowed by Willie Horton, Sister Souljah, Tawana Brawley, and O.J. Simpson. Only a few black scholars, such as William Julius Wilson and Orlando Patterson, and white writers, such as yours truly, suggested that the significance of race was declining - and that it should.

Conservatives such as Ward Connerly and Abigail Thernstrom were saying so, too, of course, assuring us that, with free-market prosperity, the only color to count would be dollar green. Leftists such as Thomas Sugrue and George Shulman retorted that racism and American capitalism are inextricable and that only militant anti-racism can dislodge capitalist exploitation.

But it wasn't conservative or leftist thinking that prompted Wilson, Patterson, me, and others to question the color-coded "identity politics" of racists and anti-racists alike. We even questioned variants of the "diversity" speak of the Ford Foundation, Louis Farrakhan, and David Duke, all of whom presumed that having a color means having a culture.

We insisted, instead, that the best way to dissolve racism's blighting effects (including some equally blighting non-white racialist responses) is to invest more deeply in a common civic-republican culture that sustains trans-racial heavy lifting in economic stimuli, early education, and, yes, family values.

For saying so we were accused rather bitterly of denying white racism and of chilling black pride and of being Uncle Toms or racists ourselves. Now, though, Obama is saying virtually everything we did. And he is winning.

No wonder that some conservatives dread him and some leftists reject him, as a dissimulating neo-liberal. That's how they process what he has done - whether they fear that he is undermining Sarah Palin's America or really only shoring it up.

Others have come around, though, to a more balanced view. I had to smile on Sunday as New York Times columnist Frank Rich inveighed against a mainstream press whose "default setting," he claims, "has been to ominously intone that 'in the privacy of the voting booth' ignorant, backward whites will never vote for a black man.'" In my book Liberal Racism ten years ago, I faulted Rich for using that default setting himself, discerning racism and reactionary politics in white proletarian gatherings like a Christian men's "Promise Keepers'" rally, whose composition he didn't notice was 25 percent black and Hispanic!

Times change - as has the Times. Twenty years ago, too few black leaders endorsed or embodied our hopeful consensus. Now, Obama has put that consensus to the clearest, cleanest test any of us could have envisioned. He can do it because he has put himself through the personal struggles I mention in Dissent and that I ruminated about here the day after the New Hampshire primary.

No one talks much about his early struggles these days, but from them he has enriched a civic-republican idiom worthy of Lincoln and more, tapping the deepest American currents in African-American identity and the indelibly black elements in American national identity.

He hasn't done it alone. The change he represents has come quietly to many others since the late 1990s: George W. Bush's elevation of Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice to positions of influence and authority was part of a sea-change in the perceptions of many whites and of young blacks orienting themselves to broadening horizons.
Give a little credit even to John McCain, adoptive father of a Bangladeshi daughter, for refusing to tie Obama to the histrionic anti-racism of Jeremiah Wright.

But will Obama's trans-racial politics really prevail on November 4th, or will the "Bradley effect" be back on our lips?

Racist robo-calls and radio demagogues are stirring up racist diehards and dissimulators, whose fears may be driving state boards of elections to look for ways to stop new and non-white registrants from voting.

Fortunately the Supreme Court, perhaps recalling its own fall from public grace in the election of 2000, has sent a strong signal against sweeping suspensions of new registrants. The Justices know that many Americans who deferred to them in 2000 won't tolerate a similar gambit on their part this year. And that's because national thinking about race has changed, fitfully and painfully, for the better.

Obama has done everything a black candidate could to show that this country's redemption has not and will not come through making race a central organizing principle of our polity and civic culture, let alone a wedge for partisan politics. Decent Republicans and conservatives have stepped forward to show it, too.

Now it's up to those who claim, as Palin does, that Obama is different from other Americans to admit that he's different enough from inner-city black youths, too -- though similar enough in ways racism has made important -- to have turned their heads, raised their hopes, and denied them any cheap racial excuses.

If Obama loses, despite an economic crisis that ought to doom supply-siders like McCain, it will be a body blow to all of us who've looked and reached beyond race in American politics. But if he wins by more than a bitter squeaker, I won't just feel vindicated; I'll fantasize another possibility, one I haven't heard any great mentioners mention:

If Obama would consent to be sworn in as "Barack Hussein Obama," millions of young Muslims' heads would turn, too. I'd love to watch his American detractors absorbing the gain that would bring to America's best civic-republican ideals world-wide, as well as in Harlem, the Southside and Watts.
Read entire article at TPM (Liberal blog)

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