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.

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)?

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.

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