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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.

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About Chris Lawrence
Chris teaches political science at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. He has a Ph.D. in political science (American politics and political methodology) from the University of Mississippi.

Comments

  1. Bruce Moomaw says:

    At the risk of being stripped of my long-time Liberal Brownie Badge, may I suggest that the trouble with Pastor Wright — definitely the biggest political cross Obama has to bear right now — has nothing to do with his being “black”, and everything to do with his being a loud-mouthed, demagogic pain in the ass whom Obama should never had had anything to do with?

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  2. rodney dill says:

    It is now “racist” to hint that others are going to use a candidate’s race against him?

    I don’t believe Obama’s comment was racist in itself, but rather was playing the race card. Claiming negative ads as being the fruits of racism.

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  3. Bruce Moomaw says:

    Well, let’s face it: there HAVE been some sleazy accusations against him — although they revolve less around his being black than about his supposedly being Moslem, or about being a furriner who is not really concerned with the well-being of America.

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  4. Bruce Moomaw says:

    In the latter connection, by the way, Amygdala (poor bastard) has reprinted Obama’s entire Berlin speech, and then followed it up with the “version soon to appear as translated on various rightwing sites”:

    “We must surrender to Al Qaeda as soon as possible; I call on you all to become dhimmis — as soon as my civilian national security force of illegal Mexican immigrants is ready to impose this on you, along with mandatory homosexuality and 300% taxes. Now join me and my Vice-Presidential running mate, Osama bin Laden Marx, in denouncing my honkie grandmother, you Nazis.”

    Come to think of it, I think Bithead has already beaten him to it.

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  5. Hal says:

    Seems that even the conservative David Gergen was able to plainly see the man behind the curtain, Chris. You can watch Gergen schooling George Will on the subject on This Week.

    It’s pretty clear Gergen knows who injected race into the campaign, Chris. It’s pretty funny to see the expressions on George and the other dude’s face as Gergen lays it out for them.

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  6. Floyd says:

    If “you people” or “they all look alike” are racist statements, then he “doesn’t look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills.”
    certainly is!

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  7. Hal says:

    Actually, here’s a better clip on you tube of David Gergen calling it out that there was “a very intentional effort” to inject racial signals into this campaign. You should watch the full clip previously linked on the ABC site for the schooling of George Will and his magic bow tie on this subject.

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  8. May I suggest that the trouble with Pastor Wright — definitely the biggest political cross Obama has to bear right now — has nothing to do with his being “black”, and everything to do with his being a loud-mouthed, demagogic pain in the ass whom Obama should never had had anything to do with?

    Perhaps, but I think race plays into the Wright situation two different ways: Obama was fairly clearly a member of that church in part to establish his bona fides as an outsider in black culture (descendants of black slaves don’t generally consider descendants of more recent African immigrants as culturally “black”), and much of Wright’s demagoguery centered on race, even though a lot of it reflected in animated, exaggerated form some justified grievances from the black community. I think boisterous preaching alone (say if Obama had been a Southern Baptist with a preacher yammering on about AIDS and gays) wouldn’t have been as problematic for Obama as the Wright situation.

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  9. LaurenceB says:

    Since the McCain campaign has already stooped so low as to super-impose Obama’s photo over dollar bills, (see here) I fail to see how they can take great umbrage over Obama’s suggestion that they would stoop so low as to super-impose his image over dollar bills.

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  10. Dave Schuler says:

    Look, both campaigns are doing what they’ve got to do to win. Simple as that.

    Sen. Obama must racialize the campaign. Sen. McCain must run against Sen. Obama. Let’s not claim outrage that each campaign is succumbing to the inevitable.

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  11. Dave – The funny thing is that the literature says that racializing the campaign is a bad tactic for Obama, as a black candidate running in a campaign with an 80-85% non-black electorate. He wouldn’t have been elected a US senator from Illinois if he had made direct racial appeals either.

    The experience of Carol Mosely Braun is instructive; when she tried to run for reelection as the “black candidate” being persecuted by the FEC she lost, in a year (1998) that was favorable for Democrats.

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  12. Dave Schuler says:

    I think that both candidates are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. As Donna Brazile noted in yesterday’s ABC This Week roundtable, Sen. Obama needs to make voters comfortable with the idea of his candidacy. If he completely ignores race, it won’t have that effect. If he mentions race, he’s racializing the campaign.

    Sen. McCain has a similar fine line to tread. Since the press has made the campaign about Sen. Obama himself, Sen. McCain must attack Sen. Obama or concede the election. If he attacks too virulently, he destroys his own brand as they say.

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  13. Hal says:

    Look, both campaigns are doing what they’ve got to do to win. Simple as that.

    Agreed, though the problem will be if McCain loses his brand. If his loses his “base” due to more of this kind of crap – whether it’s racist or not, his “base” is not amused – then he’ll have nothing left. No “maverick”, no nothing. All he’ll have left is a relentlessly negative campaign who’s only hope is to drag down Obama low enough into the mud.

    As Josh Marshall notes, McCain’s reputation will be completely destroyed. If he loses, he ain’t gonna have anything left…

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  14. Bruce Moomaw says:

    Ok, Chris, let me fine-tune what I said. Wright’s blatherings do harm Obama somewhat more than ultra-right fundamentalist blatherings by a white preacher would harm a white candidate, for the obvious reason that there are more whites than blacks in this country and so obnoxious white pastors still have much larger congregations than obnoxious black pastors. (Which, of course, is why GOP candidates — including McCain — are still so VERY careful not to alienate the white ones. Shortly before Falwell’s death, McCain was openly and gushingly praising him — and Falwell and Pat Robertson, lest we forget, announced two days after 9-11 that it was God’s righteous punishment on us for starting to support gay rights. Compares nicely to Wright’s comments, don’t you think? Odd that the press said so little about it during the Wright kerfuffle.)

    But — while “race” was therefore indeed a relevant element in the Wright kerfuffle — it wouldn’t have been relevant at all unless Wright (unlike so many other black pastors) hadn’t said so many outrageous things, and if Obama hadn’t sat in his church for 20 straight years and listened to that stuff instead of walking out on it (as Oprah actually did). Even though McCain ended up publicly gushing over the absolutely loathsome and evil Falwell, at least he didn’t sit in the guy’s congregation for two decades.

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