Democracy and Elections

Obama in a New Era of Race Politics

Is color blindness the model we want for diversity?
As news broke of Barack Obama's victory in Iowa, one of the country's whitest states, political pundits of all stripes quickly told us that we were witnessing a historic shift: the end of race and racism as campaign issues. Even CNN's dour conservative political analyst Bill Bennett waxed multiculti as he proclaimed that Obama "taught" African Americans that race wasn't an issue they needed inorder to succeed in politics. Though enthusiastic about the Obama victory, Bennett's more jocular colleague Jack Cafferty was not quite ready to intone a full-throated Kumbaya. But he did declare that the Illinois senator's win "gives him currency in a state where the color of his skin may be an issue."

NBC's Tom Brokaw credited the Mike Huckabee victory in the Republican caucus to "his defense against illegal immigration," an issue not viewed in racial terms by white voters. On all parts of the political and media spectrum, pundits and politicos are interpreting the Iowa results to mean that we inhabit a color-blind electoral system.

While watching a black man win the vote of an overwhelmingly white electorate is especially welcome in such racially-charged times as ours,
and while the victory of a poor (at least in terms of electoral cash) populist preacher over the preferred Republican candidates of corporate America is refreshing, we are hardly entering the age of race invisibility in politics.

Instead, Iowa points us towards the age of invisible race politics.

To his credit, Barack Obama has carefully cultivated an image as a "change" candidate who takes the higher ground, one that talks about race -- but not racism. Iowa confirms that, in doing so, he can make even the whitest electorate feel like it's voting to overcome the catastrophic legacy of racial discrimination, like the Oprah viewer that gives himself or herself a racial pat on the back for really, truly liking her show.

"[Obama] is being consumed as the embodiment of color blindness," political theorist Angela Davis told the Nation magazine recently, adding that "it's the notion that we have moved beyond racism by not taking race into account. That's what makes him conceivable as a presidential candidate. He's become the model of diversity in this period ... a model of diversity as the difference that makes no difference. The change that brings no change."

It was interesting to watch Obama deliver the most memorable and moving caucus victory speech in memory, one that included King-like intonations and references to the activists who "marched through Selma and Montgomery for freedom's cause" in the 1960s. Such inspired, impassioned pleas follow a campaign trail-tested rhetoric in which racism such as that surrounding the Jena Six case remains a largely unspoken part of Obama's speeches and policy platforms. He appears to be more comfortable getting choked up when speaking about the fight against the racist past than he does during those few times he talks about the racist present.

On the Republican side, Mike Huckabee also did his part to promote invisible race politics. The GOP underdog did so in no small part thanks to the issue of immigration, a very racial electoral wedge that many voters believe has nothing to do with race.

By focusing on "illegals," "illegal aliens" and other racial codes, Huckabee and other Republican candidates get to ride the juggernaut of anti-immigrant, anti-Latino sentiment gripping the country -- without appearing racist. Pundits have even taken to calling the immigration issue the "New Willie Horton," in reference to how, during the 1988 presidential race, a political advertisement deployed by George H.W. Bush against Democratic rival Michael Dukakis featured a black man convicted of murder who, after being furloughed. raped a woman. Many African Americans and others deemed the Horton ads a thinly veiled appeal to anti-black sentiment in the electorate.

Latino leaders and editorials in Spanish-language newspapers have denounced Huckabee for openly touting the endorsement of Jim Gilchrist, one of the co-founders of the anti-immigrant Minutemen, an organization denounced as a racist hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and others. In an election that will witness the largest Latino voter participation in history, how well the veil of legality hides the racial aspects embedded in the immigration issue may determine the fate of Republican candidates like Huckabee.

Regardless of the outcome of this year's election, the success of Barack Obama and the immigration politics of Mike Huckabee signal clearly that we are well on our way to a new era in race and politics. Obama's story and his echoes of King make us feel good about ourselves and God knows this country desperately needs that. The question we need to ask is: "Are we willing to push him to talk seriously about those echoes of the racial past in the present that he so skillfully avoids?" And as far as Republicans like Huckabee, we have to ask, "How long are we willing to accept their unskillful use of the racist appeals inherent in their rants about immigrants and immigration issues?" Failure to ask these and other questions will leave us vulnerable to the silent poison of invisible race politics.
Roberto Lovato is a New York-based writer with New America Media. Read more of his work at ofamerica.wordpress.com.