What the claims that a black man is unelectable say about us.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Jan. 8 2008 2:36 PM

Who's Afraid for Obama?

What the claims that a black man is unelectable say about the rest of us.

(Continued from Page 1)

Such worries run deeper than the election itself, however. Suppose the impossible happens: The racist assassins all somehow miss their mark, and Obama is elected in November. What, the once-bitten frets, if he blows it? Suppose the economy goes into recession or terrorists take out the Chrysler Building? Then, Obama's failures will redound to the entire black race in a way his successes never could have. Good grief! It could set race relations back 20 years! Given the sorry state of the economy and foreign affairs, can anyone even fix it? Wouldn't it be convenient for racists if the nation's first black president faced a mission impossible? In fact, how do we know this isn't all part of their evil plan?

There's no doubt that a black candidate—to say nothing of a black president—faces hazards and obstacles a white candidate simply does not face. Even the assassination worry—which initially sounds shrill and paranoid—isn't entirely unfounded: No doubt there will be some number of gun-toting lunatics aiming for Obama merely because he's black. But anyone who breaks a glass ceiling has to expect some headaches, and Sen. Obama seems quite capable of assessing these risks for himself. Suppose the first black commanding officer in an integrated military, the first black CEO of a Fortune 500 company, or the first black daytime talk-show hostess had decided the risks were too great and declined the challenge (or others declined for them)?

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It's understandable that victims of racism would be reluctant to get too excited about Obama's prospects. But by holding Obama back to protect him from racism, they let their own worst past experiences limit his—and the nation's—future prospects.

Investment-in-Oppression
And finally, I suspect that some people are simply too invested in the idea that American racism is monolithic and implacable to entertain the possibility that a majority of Americans might actually vote for Obama. Because suppose Obama does win, taking several Midwestern and Southern "red" states in the process. Then a lot of professional racial activists will need to hastily revise their speeches: How credible is the idea of a white-supremacist society led by a black man? Even people who aren't professionally invested in the idea of monolithic white racism might, oddly but understandably, be personally invested in it. Having—of longtime practical necessity—organized one's worldview around the implacability of white racism, one might find the idea that a majority of Americans would vote for a black president impossible to accept.

To be clear: An Obama victory would hardly signal the end of racism in America. But Obama's recent and dramatic success does suggest that simple color prejudice is not always the decisive factor in the lives of racial minorities that it was 20 or 30 years ago. No doubt some Obama supporters do their unwitting parts to perpetuate such racial inequalities, such as neighborhood segregation, subtle job discrimination, overzealous law enforcement, and punitive criminal sentencing. But it's unlikely that such an Obama supporter is a "racist" in any meaningful sense of that word. She may simply be living in a world shaped by race, even when her politics are not. If we're now living in a society where many racial injustices are not caused by racism strictly speaking but by subtler social hierarchies, economic inequalities, and the present-day effects of decades-old racial policies, we may need to rethink approaches to racial justice that inevitably presume that racial injustice is to racism as smoke is to fire.

A boycott or civil demonstration makes sense when the goal is to pressure, shame, or discredit a bigot, but it may well be misplaced when problems of racial injustice involve factual ambiguities, close judgment calls, sins of omission, and problems of inertia. The fracturing of American racism is reason for optimism, but the new opportunities and challenges it creates also may be disconcerting and threatening to many long-suffering racial minorities and racial-justice activists, who are as comfortable with the known enemy of old-school racism as a Cold War general was with the Soviet Union. Learning to navigate a world in which racism is less of an impediment to success that we had once thought is a burden we all should be happy to accept.

Defeatists insist Obama cannot win because the average American will never be able to let go of racial prejudice. Yet he somehow speaks to overflowing houses, packed with enthusiastic voters from the American heartland. It will be a sad irony if the biggest impediment to Obama's success next fall turns out to be our own prejudices about the nature of prejudice.

Richard Thompson Ford teaches at Stanford Law School. His latest books are Rights Gone Wrong: How Law Corrupts the Struggle for Equality and Universal Rights Down to Earth.