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.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama

Ever since he threw his hat into the presidential ring, some liberals have worried that Barack Obama is unelectable. This country, they say, simply isn't ready for a black president. Ultimately, the concern that Obama can't win because he's black says a lot more about the people who voice it than it does about the electorate it purportedly describes. So, who are these people, and what's really behind their anxiety?

It's tempting to say the "electability" worry is a pretext for people who really oppose Obama due to their own racial prejudices, and I'm sure that's true in some cases. But it's the folks who worry for Obama for his own good who are most fascinating. Lots of black people have said they think Obama can't win and others—predominantly from the Southeastern states—have gone further and said they'll vote against him to "protect" him from the inevitable assassination attempts that will dog a black president.

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I find it hard to take this rather appalling paternalism seriously, but if it is a pretext, then what is going on in the minds of these defeatists? I suspect there are three distinct reasons for Obama fatalism among liberals of all races: false realism, once-bitten timidity, and investment-in-oppression.

False Realism
Party loyalists and insiders—of all races—are most likely to adopt this posture of cool-headed, pragmatic skepticism about Obama's chances. At first blush, the Obama-can't-win stance has a ring of gritty and pragmatic social realism: Let's get real—if we want to beat the Republicans, we can't afford to back a candidate with a built-in handicap.A black candidate would be great, but beating the Republicans is more important. This suggests that Obama supporters are starry-eyed dreamers, so caught up in Obama's mystique and the romance of the first black president that they'll wind up sacrificing the White House to their unrealistic fantasies.

The irony here is, of course, that one can as easily say the same thing about Hillary Clinton supporters—just replace Obama mystique with Clinton pedigree and black with female, and add that Hillary Clinton's liabilities go beyond gender to include a genuine lack of charisma and all the baggage of her husband's tenure as commander in chief. So, perhaps the greater irony becomes that in the name of ensuring competitiveness, these alleged realists would have us all support the hopeful who is currently running a distant third place.

The false realist also has the potential, ironically, to sound more racially sensitive than the Obama enthusiast: After all, only someone in deep denial about the depth and breadth of American racism could believe that this white-supremacist country would ever elect a black president. Anyone who takes racism seriously knows that when it comes down to the privacy of the curtained booth, white people will always vote their prejudice, even at the expense of their self-interest.

But these so-called realists ought to look to the objective facts rather than dated clichés. And the facts—polling data and performance—suggest that Obama is more likely to beat any of the potential Republican nominees than is Hillary Clinton or John Edwards. So, "realism" here, in fact, boils down to knee-jerk assumptions about the inveterate racism of the American electorate, uninformed by any exposure to what's actually happening on the campaign trail.

Once-Bitten Timidity
Especially for black voters, hard experience with American racism may also yield a powerful psychological reluctance to support Obama. Better not to get one's hopes up; in the end, racist white America will always disappoint. The probably overreported worry that Obama will be assassinated if elected president is the most dramatic example of this strand of timidity; the simple conviction that in the end, white voters won't support a black candidate is a much more common example of it.

OK, they think, so he won in Iowa. But the caucus vote is public: People get kudos for their open-mindedness if they support a black candidate and perhaps some contempt for their bigotry if they don't. But what happens in the primaries, to say nothing of the election, where the ballot is secret? Then the reverse dynamic will be in play: No kudos for racial tolerance; no censure for bigotry.