The elephant in the room: Obama, the left and the race question

By Malik Miah

August 10, 2008 -- Much of the world is fascinated by the current US presidential election. The main reason is because the United States is ready to do something that most developed countries would never consider doing: electing a representative from an oppressed minority as head of state.

Could Australia ever elect an Aborigine as prime minister? An Australian of Asian descent? Could Germany ever elect a German-born Turk as chancellor? What about a black as head of state in the United Kingdom or France? Yet we in the United States are discussing the real possibility that a man with a father from Africa, representing a community of descendants of former slaves, could actually be elected president of the most powerful country in human history.

So it is not a surprise that Barack Obama’s skin colourand bi-racial origins are a subtle and not-so-subtle issue in the presidential race. During the Democratic Party primaries, for example, Hillary Clinton and the former president Bill Clinton and their supporters made references to the “fact” that Obama could not appeal to enough “blue-collar workers” — meaning white working-class Americans in the main — to defeat the Republican nominee (Bill Clinton is still very upset that some in the Black community thought he was playing the “race card” to help get his wife nominated. He hasn’t met with Obama yet.)

Now the expected Republican nominee, John McCain, is playing the same dirty race card to undermine support for Obama — the likely Democratic Party nominee. The most infamous ad involved the two young white female personalities (Brittney Spears and Paris Hilton) and Obama. There is a long history of race-baiting politics using the fear of a Black man with white women in US society.

Race matters

Can the United States overcome its history of racial prejudice to elect the first Black president?

Race is the elephant in the room. But few will openly acknowledge its role in this unprecedented presidential race. Code words are used by the media to avoid the issue of racism and race prejudice.

Yet the fact is the Democratic Party expects to win big in the House of Representatives and Senate races because of the very low approval rating of the Republicans, especially President George W. Bush (some 20%) and his diabolical vice-president, Dick Cheney (even less).

But the polls show the presidential race too close to call. McCain is in a statistical dead heat with Obama.

There is only one reason for this: Obama’s skin colour. The Republican attack machine led by former Bush aides is running negative ads that tell angry white voters upset by high gas prices, fewer jobs and a dark future that Obama can’t be trusted.

While it is true that the racism and racial prejudice of most whites is at historic low levels, there is no doubt that the 23% of whites who openly state they will never vote for a Black can turn the 2008 elections to the Republican nominee. The Republicans know that several ``swing states’’ are in play and race can make the difference.

(The US presidential election is not won by a national popular vote. It is based on who wins the most electoral votes, which are calculated state by state. In 2000 Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the electoral collage vote to Bush.)

What’s striking is that the Republicans have been able to attack Obama by playing the “race card” then blaming Obama for explaining how the race card will be used by the Republicans. Obama has repeatedly explained that his opponents will raise the fear of him to divert discussion of the issues of war and the economy because he doesn’t look like previous presidents on US currency.

The media falls for the lie as it did four years earlier when the same tactic was used to smear (“Swift boat”) Democrat John Kerry over his military record during the Vietnam War. Worse, the pundits have all accepted the false concept of “blue-collar workers” being only white workers, leaving out Black, Latino and Asian workers.

Obama’s campaign has played its hand too carefully on the race-baiting issue. The campaign has a strategic fear that any mention of race will agitate the “fear factor” among whites and may lead them to vote for the “safe” white candidate.

Race matters because racism is institutionalised throughout US society. The fact that an African American (bi-racial but Black, because skin colour is what defines you) could be elected to the most powerful office in the world is not a concern to the ruling class. It knows Obama will defend its interests.

But that truth is not enough to be elected. Political power has been in the hands of white men so long that a change of power won’t happen without a fight.

Many mainstream, journalists are now beginning to openly discuss this elephant in the campaign. EJ Dionne Jr., of the Washington Post, observed, “There is no doubt that two keys to this election are: How many white and Latino votes will Obama lose because of his race than a white Democrat would have won? And how much will African American turnout grow, given the opportunity to elect our nation’s first Black president?”

(Dionne notes that in 1960, when John F. Kennedy ran and won as the “first Catholic president”, his religion was an issue and he won 80% of the Catholic vote — about 30% greater than the Catholic share won four years earlier.)

Obama is fully aware of this history. It’s why he is shifting on issues like affirmative action and talking more about “class” as the basis for qualifications to enter higher education and other positions. The fact is skin colour is always a factor even for wealthier, more educated Blacks. Study after study shows — and proves — that equally qualified whites and Blacks applying for jobs, nine times out of 10 whites will get the job first. Affirmative action is necessary to level the playing field and to ensure equal opportunity. (Obama has told white audiences his two daughters won’t need it to appeal to their false belief that there is such a thing as “Black skin privilege.”)

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The problem for Obama and his supporters is the blatantly racist campaigns of the past (Richard Nixon’s infamous 1968 “Southern strategy” to get poor whites to change parties) are no longer viable. Today the campaigns are more subtle as the Spears-Hilton ad showed — and they tend to work.

The Republican attack machine uses “fear” of the Black man and Obama’s alleged “elitism” (he attended ColumbiaUniversity in New York and HarvardLawSchool) as wedge issues for white workers looking for an excuse to vote against a Black candidate.

McCain’s charge that Obama is not qualified to be commander in chief is a red herring. So is the charge of elitism since Obama’s upbringing by a single white mother and a distant father is more in common to what most working-class whites face.

The “fear the Black man” machine is not just aimed at working-class whites, but at Latinos and Asians too. It is noteworthy that two-thirds of Latinos are polling for Obama, who they see as closer to their concerns especially on the issue of immigration. The Asian community is more divided but a majority still favour the Democrats and Obama.

Some 40 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., now a national hero, and the fall of legal segregation it is amazing that a Black man may be elected president.

If the Republican attack machine succeeds in turning the election into the “white guy versus the Black man” the outcome of the election could change with many anti-racists voting for Obama to express opposition to the race baiting of the Republican campaign.

There is no way today to predict what will happen in November. In the late 1960s after the victories of the civil rights movement that led to some important legal changes in law, the first Black candidates for higher office (big city mayors) faced vicious racial attacks. Whenever those elections were nominally labeled “non-partisan” many on the socialist left backed those candidacies as a rejection of racism and support to the right of the Black community to have elected political representation. They knew that these candidates still identified themselves as Democrats.

The 2008 presidential election has some similarities. The difference of course is that Obama doesn’t pretend to be independent. He isn’t running against the old guard of his party. He is campaigning as a “centrist” new Democrat, as seen in his positions on major issues — from energy, the economy, health care and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

World tour in this context

Obama’s quickly organised and highly publicised international trip in July, in this context, was to show the world and the United States (his main audience) that he is “presidential”. What he said was mainstream and in line with the shift in US imperial policy that began under former president Bill Clinton and accelerated under Bush.

Obama’s trip to the Middle East was not a repudiation of Bush-Cheney policies but an argument that the Democrats have a better strategic plan to protect Israel and defend US interests. Obama supports US domination of the Arab world. He advocates a more aggressive war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. (He even told his staff and reporters not to wear “green” while in Israel and Jordan because it symbolises Hamas!)

Obama also told the media that he sees generals as tacticians carrying out the president’s orders. Obama, like Bush, will pick generals who support or accept his polices.

When Obama spoke to hundreds of thousands of Germans in Berlin, he focused on the responsibility of the world (“I’m a citizen of the world”, he said) to defend the “free world” from terrorism.

While much of the left sees Obama shifting positions on Iraq by proposing a long-term withdrawal, he strongly advocates a new “surge” into Afghanistan. He is also for a more aggressive policy toward Pakistan.

Obama simply believes he’s smarter than the Bush team and thus more capable of defending US interests while he rebuilds alliances with ``Old Europe” and rising Asian powers.

Obama’s domestic programs are centre right too. The “yes you” rhetoric taps the real desire for a change of leadership. While he will support some liberal positions on women’s rights and civil rights, his healthcare program is modest and does not guarantee healthcare as a right.

On energy policy he first opposed any new off-shore drilling. But as the Republican attack machine pushed back hard, he shifted his stance to allow it if “part of a comprehensive energy plan”.

The differences with McCain are sharper on social issues like affirmative action and abortion rights. But even on these issues he is fudging more and more to appeal to religious conservatives and white blue-collar workers. In the fine traditions of Bill Clinton, Obama is saying what his audiences of white gun carrying Americans want to hear.

The shift to the ”centre” assumes that minorities, particularly African Americans, will turn out in big numbers and vote for him anyway. It is likely that Blacks will do so because of the historic nature of electing a Black president. But for other groups, it’s not so clear. Obama will need a big turnout to overcome the white fear factor backlash.

Two contradictory realities

While socialists who recognise that lesser-evil politics can never free workers, including white workers, from capitalist exploitation and domination, the issue of race could be decisive if the Republicans are successful in turning the election into a referendum vote for or against the candidate best able to protect whites. Under those circumstances, it may be justifiable to cast a vote against McCain’s race baiting. I say this knowing that most socialists and those in favour of an independent working-class party will vote for the independent Ralph Nader or the Green Party presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney.

The contradiction of the Obama phenomenon is that it reflects two realties. One is the possibility that the world’s sole superpower is okay with having a Black man as its president.

Second, is the polarisation and legacy of racism in the United States. The reality is the ruling class may be okay but the politicians seeking the job are not ready to give up their privileges and power.

For socialists the issue of Obama (the unique figure and capitalist politician) is conflicted. On the one hand, there is no doubt that backing a candidate of the most powerful military industrial complex in the world is impossible.

On the other hand, the issue of race and racism poses the question: Is the election of Obama as the first Black president a way to push back racist ideology as it was in the1960s-70s when the first “independent” Black candidates for big city mayors were elected did?

I'm of two mind sets. As a socialist I will either vote for Nader or McKinney to advance the need for class independance.

But as a supporter of nationalism of the oppressed, I'm inclined to vote against the de facto race-bating campaign of McCain and elect the first Black president.

During the great American Civil War in the 1860s, Marx and Engels wholeheartedly supported the North against the South. They urged their followers to join the Union Army and help bring about the defeat of the slave owners. Marx and Engels had no illusions of what that meant for capitalist development and consolidation. But the smashing of the slave labour system and development of a modern-day US capitalism was in their view in the long-term interests of the working class.

A new body blow to racist ideology by electing a Black man as president isn’t on that order of significance for many reasons. But it would send a message that citizenship and rights should not be based on the false construct called “race” or the shade of your skin.

[Malik Miah is a San Francisco trade union activist at United Airlines, an editor of the US socialist magazine Against the Current and a supporter of the US socialist group Solidarity. A shorter version of the this article first appeared in Green Left Weekly.]