The Obama Effect | The Nation


The Obama Effect

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Obama was criticized by some black leaders for not speaking out more forcefully on the Jena Six incident. "If I were a candidate, I'd be all over Jena," Jackson said after a speech at the historically black Benedict College in South Carolina. "Jena is a defining moment, just like Selma was a defining moment." By not seizing on the issue more, Jackson claimed, Obama was "acting like he's white." (Jackson later said his comment was misrepresented; the State newspaper of Columbia stood by its reporting.) But the parallels Jackson drew shed light on the key differences between his campaign and Obama's. For if he were the candidate he wouldn't be doing as well as Obama, and the reason is less because Obama is "acting white" than because he is making every effort not to act "too black."

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Gary Younge
Gary Younge, the Alfred Knobler Journalism Fellow at The Nation Institute, is the New York correspondent for the ...

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Indeed, the main thing the new leaders have in common is that they don't scare white people. Or at least not too many and not too much. This is not an entirely accidental or insignificant fact. For while they do not control the way they are perceived, they do have some influence over how they come across. "In so much of the work I've done, I've found that you had to put people at ease on the question of race before you could even start to talk about what you were doing," explains Patrick. "I don't fit a certain expectation that some people have about black men. And I don't mean that as anything other than an observation about my life."

This is a sad but honest reflection on the reality of black middle-class life in America. Anyone who wants to make it in a predominantly white world has to navigate racism in all its subtlety and plausible deniability. In this sense the boardrooms and debating chambers are no different from the rap videos on BET. Race is, among other things, a performance.

Obama knows this only too well. In The Audacity of Hope, he recalls sitting in the Illinois Senate with a white Democratic legislator as they watched a black colleague (referred to as John Doe) deliver a speech on the racist implications of eliminating a certain program. "You know what the problem is with John?" the white senator asked him. "Whenever I hear him, he makes me feel more white." Obama reflected. "In defense of my black colleague, I pointed out that it's not always easy for a black politician to gauge the right tone to take--too angry? not angry enough?--when discussing the enormous hardships facing his or her constituents. Still, [his] comment was instructive. Rightly or wrongly, white guilt has largely exhausted itself in America."

Whether "white guilt" has ever truly been exercised, let alone exhausted, and what good it ever did anyone even if it has, are moot points. The fact of the matter is that a black politician who wants white support must first "gauge the right tone." In 1995, when it seemed as though Colin Powell might run for President, he explained his appeal to white voters thus: "I speak reasonably well, like a white person," and, visually, "I ain't that black."

In the past this would not have mattered. There was a time when Powell could have been as light-skinned as a latte and as eloquent as Shakespeare and still not be in the running. In 1958, 53 percent of voters said they would not vote for a black candidate for President; in 1984 it was 16 percent; by 2003 it was 6 percent. Herein lies one substantial fact that is remolding the nature of black politics and the opportunities for black politicians--white people have become a viable electoral constituency for black candidates. According to a Washington Post/ABC News poll early this year, a candidate's being over 72, a Mormon or twice divorced are all greater issues for voters than race.

There is, of course, the very real chance that they are lying.In the past white voters have told pollsters that they were happier about voting for black candidates than they actually were, leaving the vote for black candidates about five points less than predicted. This was once known as the Bradley effect, after the 1982 gubernatorial candidacy of black Democratic candidate Tom Bradley in California. Bradley was ahead in the polls until the very end but lost. Some white voters who said they would vote for Bradley changed their minds on election day. Seven years later it was renamed the Wilder effect, after Douglas Wilder narrowly scraped to victory as Virginia governor in what, according to polls, ought to have been a far more comfortable win.

But it seems unlikely that this time around there will be an "Obama effect." A report by the Pew Research Center, which matched the polls to the results for five black candidates in statewide races during the 2006 midterms, found that they were highly accurate. "Fewer people are making judgments about candidates based solely, or even mostly, on race itself," concluded the Pew report. This change in voting patterns enables black candidates to make substantial rather than symbolic runs for state or even national office and therefore lends different potential priorities to black political possibilities. But to be successful they have to nurture a different base and create a different coalition of interests than their predecessors did.

"The civil rights generation saw politics as the next step in the struggle for civil rights," explains Salim Muwakkil, senior editor of In These Times. "Their aim was to get their agenda taken up by whoever won. But this new generation do not conceive politics as the next step but just as what it is--politics. Their aim is to win."n

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