Deracialization and Barack Obama
While I’ve been busy moving my stuff to Texas, Barack Obama has been inadvertently injecting race into the presidential contest with his statement that he “doesn’t look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills.” While the historically-inclined might have criticized his remark for lumping Alexander Hamilton in with the motley crew of ex-presidents represented among the now-circulating bills, many voters seem to be more concerned that the comment is racist. As Daniel Larison points out, that doesn’t seem to be the right term:
What I find even more remarkable is the idea that anyone could interpret Obama’s comment as being racist. It is now “racist” to hint that others are going to use a candidate’s race against him? Does that make any sense? Do 53% of likely voters really think Obama making an obvious reference to his race (one so obvious that you have to think your audience morons to deny it) is racist? If so, can we officially declare that the word has no more meaning, or at least that for the most part it is trotted out whenever we want to refer to something as Very Bad? Obama’s remark may be many things, but of all the words I can think of to describe it racist is not among them.
Nonetheless, now the oft-maligned “race card” is now in play, and probably to the disadvantage of the Obama campaign. The political science literature on the topic generally indicates that the best strategy for minority candidates attempting to win a sufficient share of the non-minority vote to win is to downplay race and racially-connected issues as much as possible.
Tellingly, the main stumbling blocks so far (Jeremiah Wright, his travails in the Democratic primaries in Appalachia and weak support in the primaries from Hispanic voters in the southwest, and now with the “dollar bill” remark) for Obama have largely been related to race. And while the McCain campaign and RNC will almost certainly be smart enough not to leave their fingerprints on any overt racial fingerpointing that could damage Obama’s support, it’s virtually guaranteed that the 527s and independent groups will have far fewer scruples in that regard.