US Has Moved Beyond Racist Past
Obama may lose, but not because he's black.

The Australian, Monday, February 11, 2008

Is the US an irredeemably racist society?

You would think the success of Barack Obama's presidential campaign would have answered that question in the negative. Yet many observers, both in the US and abroad, still insist a black man cannot be elected president.

There is no question that Obama, unlike earlier black candidates Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, has an appeal that transcends race. He won big in Iowa, a state that is only 2.3 per cent black. Although he lost New Hampshire to Hillary Clinton, he finished a strong second, in a state that is just 1.1 per cent black.

True, in South Carolina the Clintons' efforts to marginalise him as the black candidate seemed to pay off. Fewer than one in four white voters supported him. On Super Tuesday his share of the white vote was similarly small in the southern states of Alabama and Tennessee. But he won South Carolina and Alabama, thanks to huge shares of the black vote, and he won Georgia, where he managed to pull 43 per cent of whites.

He also won Super Tuesday contests in every other region of the country: the northeast (Connecticut, Delaware), the Midwest (Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota) and the west (Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Utah). And he won at least 40 per cent of the vote everywhere except in Oklahoma and Hillary Clinton's former home state of Arkansas. This is an astonishingly strong showing for a freshman senator challenging one of his party's senior figures.

Sceptics will point out that these are Democratic primaries, in which the electorate is more liberal and, the thinking goes, more racially tolerant than in a general election. It is also true that blacks have had trouble being elected statewide in America. Obama is only the second black elected to the US Senate in the past 35 years, and only two blacks have been elected governor during the same period, or ever.

Yet the reasons for the political marginalisation of blacks are complicated and have less to do with lingering racism than with the unintended consequences of measures designed to combat racism.

For a century after the Civil War, blacks' political preferences, where they were able to vote at all, changed roughly in tune with those of the nation as a whole. Blacks were loyal Republicans between the 1860s and the 1920s, a period during which the Republicans were the dominant party nationwide. They moved toward the Democrats during the New Deal era, as did the country. In 1964 blacks voted overwhelmingly for Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson, who beat Republican Barry Goldwater in a landslide.

Ever since, blacks have voted solidly Democratic, even as the country as a whole turned Republican. That is in large part because Johnson earned black loyalty by pressing Congress to approve the Civil Rights Act of 1964, while Republicans lost it by nominating Goldwater, a senator who had opposed the act, albeit on libertarian grounds rather than racial ones.

Few blacks have been elected to statewide office in part because of another landmark civil rights law, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Eventually this law was construed as requiring a practice known as racial gerrymandering, the creation of majority-black congressional and state legislative districts. Republicans, normally cool to racial quotas, embraced them in this case out of self-interest: concentrating black (mostly Democratic) voters in their own districts made neighbouring districts easier for Republican candidates to win.

Racial gerrymandering had the desired effect of increasing the number of blacks in the House of Representatives and state legislatures. But it meant that in order to be elected to office, a young black politician did not have to appeal outside his race.

Thus blacks in the house tend to be more left-wing, and more focused on racial matters, than their colleagues, even fellow Democrats. This positions them poorly to face statewide electorates, which are more racially and ideologically diverse.

Obama, a member of the Illinois Senate when he was elected to the US Senate in 2004, has already beaten these odds. In 2006, two black men who departed from the ideological norm were nominated for the Senate. Although both lost, their experience belies the notion that there is a significant racist vote in the US.

Representative Harold Ford was a moderate Democrat from Tennessee, a state so Republican that George W. Bush carried it in 2000 over favourite son Al Gore. Ford lost to Republican Bob Corker, a former mayor of Chattanooga, by 51 per cent to 48 per cent, the best showing by a Democratic Senate candidate in Tennessee since 1990.

Lieutenant-governor Michael Steele was a Republican from heavily Democratic Maryland. He lost to representative Ben Cardin by 54 per cent to 44 per cent. Although 2006 was a Democratic year, Steele's percentage was the highest by a Republican in a Maryland US senate race since 1980.

Steele actually did better among white voters (50 per cent) than Cardin (48 per cent). But blacks voted party over race, choosing Cardin by a 74 per cent to 25 per cent margin. Steele polled very well among groups that, according to common prejudice, would not be expected to favour a black candidate. He won 94 per cent of Republicans, 83 per cent of conservatives, 63 per cent of white Protestants and 60 per cent of rural voters.

If Obama is the nominee, he will win a far smaller percentage of Republicans and conservatives than Steele did. But that is because he is a liberal Democrat, not because he is black. If anything, his race will be an asset, boosting turnout among blacks and attracting whites who like the idea of moving beyond race by electing a black president.

There is no guarantee that Obama will be the next president of the US. He still has to vanquish Clinton and voters in November may yet conclude he is too liberal or too inexperienced for the highest office in the land, or that the cult of personality that has arisen around him is a bit creepy, or simply that they like John McCain better.

To suggest that he cannot win because he is black, however, is to ignore how far he has already come, and how far the US has come in overcoming its history of racism.

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