The Elephant in the Room

— Malik Miah

MUCH OF THE world is fascinated by the U.S. presidential election. The main reason is that the country may be ready to do something that most developed countries wouldn’t consider: electing a representative from an oppressed minority as head of government or state. (Try to imagine an Arab citizen of Israel or France as either country’s prime minister or president; or a British prime minister of South Asian descent.)

So it is not a surprise that Barack Obama’s skin color and biracial origins is a subtle and not-so-subtle issue in the presidential race. During the Democratic Party primaries, for example, Hillary Clinton and the former president Bill Clinton and her supporters made references to the “fact” that Obama could not appeal to enough “blue-collar workers” — code for white working-class Americans in the main — to defeat the Republican nominee.

Bill Clinton is still very upset that some in the Black community thought he was playing the “race card” to help get his wife nominated. He hasn’t met with Obama yet.

Now the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain, is playing the same dirty race game to undermine support for Obama. The most infamous ad involved brief shots of the two young white female personalities (Brittney Spears and Paris Hilton, neither of whom have anything to with the election, or with Obama). There is a long history of race-baiting politics using the overt and hidden fears in American society of seeing a Black man with white women.

Why Race Matters

Can the United States overcome its history of racial prejudice to elect the first Black president? Race is the elephant in the room, yet few will openly acknowledge its role in this unprecedented presidential race. Code phrases are employed by the media to evade the issue.

Yet the fact is that the Democratic Party expects to win big in the House and Senate races because of the very low approval rating of the Republicans especially President Bush (some 20%) and his diabolical Vice President Dick Cheney (even less). But the polls show the presidential race too close to call. Republican presumptive nominee John McCain is in a statistical dead heat with Democrat Barack Obama.

There is only one reason for this: Barack Obama’s skin color. The Republican attack machine led by former Bush aides is running negative ads that tell angry white voters upset by high gas prices, fewer jobs and a dark future that Obama can’t be trusted.

While it is true that racism and racial prejudice among most whites is at historically low levels, there is no doubt that the 23% of whites who openly state they will never vote for a Black candidate can turn the 2008 elections to the Republican nominee. The Republicans know that several swing states are in play and race can make the difference.

What’s striking is that the Republicans have been able to attack Obama by playing the “race card” — and then blame Obama for explaining exactly how the race card will be used by the Republicans! Obama has repeatedly explained that his opponents will raise the fear of him to divert discussion of the issues of war and the economy because he doesn’t look like previous presidents on U.S. currency.

The media help spread the innuendo much as four years earlier when the “Swift boat” tactic was used to smear Democrat John Kerry over his military record during the Vietnam war. Worse, the pundits have accepted the false equation of “blue-collar workers” with white workers, leaving out Black, Latino and Asia workers.

Obama’s campaign managers if anything have played their hand over-carefully on the race bating issue. The campaign has a strategic fear that any mention of race will agitate the “fear factor” among whites and may lead them to vote for the “safe” white candidate.

The truth is that race matters because racism is institutionalized throughout society. The fact that an African American (bi-racial, but Black because skin color is what defines you) could be elected to the most powerful office in the world is not a concern to the ruling class. They know Obama will defend their interests. But that’s not enough to be elected. Political power has been in the hands of white men so long that a change of power won’t happen without a fight.

Mainstream journalists are beginning to openly discuss this elephant in the campaign. E.J. Dionne Jr. of the Washington Post observed, “There is no doubt that two keys to this election are: How many white and Latino votes will Obama lose because of his race than a white Democrat would have won? And how much will African American turnout grow, given the opportunity to elect our nation’s first Black president?”

(Dionne notes that in 1960 when John F. Kennedy ran and won as the “first Catholic president,” his religion was an issue and he won 80% of the Catholic vote — about 30% greater than the Catholic share won by the Democrats four years earlier.)

Obama is fully aware of this history. It’s why he is shifting on issues like affirmative action and talking more about “class” as the basis for qualifications to enter higher education and other positions.

Skin color is always a factor even for wealthier, more educated Blacks. Study after study proves that when equally qualified whites and Blacks apply for jobs, nine times out of ten whites will get the job first.

Affirmative action is necessary to level the playing field and to ensure equal opportunity. (Obama has told white audiences his two daughters won’t need it, to appeal to their false belief that there is such a thing as “Black skin privilege.”)

The problem for Obama and his supporters is that the easily exposed, blatantly racist campaigns of the past (Richard Nixon’s infamous 1968 “Southern strategy” to get poor whites to change parties) are no longer what’s in play. Today the campaigns are more subtle, even subliminal, as the Spears-Hilton ad showed.

The Republican attack machine uses “fear” of the Black man and Obama’s alleged “elitism” as wedge issues for white workers looking for an excuse to vote against a Black candidate. The “fear the Black man” machine is not just aimed at working-class whites, but at Latinos and Asians too. It is noteworthy that two-thirds of Latinos are polling for Obama, whom they see as closer to their concerns especially on the issue of immigration. The Asian community is more divided but a majority still favor Obama.

If the Republicans succeed in turning the election into the “white guy versus the Black man,” the outcome of the election could change with many anti-racist Americans voting for Obama to express opposition to the race baiting campaign. There is no way to predict the outcome.

In the late 1960s after the victories of the civil rights movement, the first Black candidates for higher office faced vicious racial attacks. Whenever those elections were nominally labeled “nonpartisan” (Detroit and Cleveland, for example) many on the socialist left backed those candidacies as a rejection of racism and support to the right of the Black community to have elected political representation. They knew that these candidates still identified themselves as Democrats.

The 2008 presidential election has some similarities. The difference of course is that Obama doesn’t pretend to be independent. He isn’t running against the old guard of his party. He is campaigning as a “centrist” new Democrat as seen in his positions on major issues — from energy, the economy, health care and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

World Tour in this Context

Obama’s quickly organized and highly publicized international trip in July, in this context, was calculated to show the world and Americans (his main audience) that he is “presidential.” What he said was mainstream, in line with the shift in U.S. imperial policy that began under former President Clinton and accelerated under Bush.

His trip to the Middle East was not a repudiation of the Bush-Cheney policies but an argument that the Democrats have a better strategic plan to protect Israel and defend U.S. interests. Obama supports U.S. domination of the Arab world. He advocates a more aggressive war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. (He even told his staff and reporters not to wear “green” while in Israel and Jordan because it symbolizes Hamas!)

Obama also told the media that he sees generals as tacticians carrying out the president’s orders. Obama, like Bush, will pick generals who support or accept his polices.

When Obama spoke to hundreds of thousands of Germans in Berlin, he focused on the responsibility of the world (“I’m a citizen of the world,” he said) to defend the “free world” from terrorism. Obama strongly advocates a new “surge” into Afghanistan. He is for a more aggressive policy toward Pakistan. (See Allen Ruff’s article elsewhere in this issue regarding Obama’s perspective for defending U.S. imperial interests.)

Obama’s domestic programs are center-right too. The “yes we can” rhetoric taps the real desire for a change of leadership. While he will support some liberal positions on women’s rights and civil rights, his health care program is modest and does not guarantee health care as a right.

The differences with McCain are sharper on social issues like affirmative action and abortion rights. But even on these issues he is fudging more and more, minimizing the differences, in order to appeal to conservative religious and white voters.

In the fine traditions of Bill Clinton, Obama is saying what his audiences, including those stereotypical white gun-carrying Americans, want to hear. The shift to “the center” assumes that minorities, particularly African Americans, will turn out big and vote for him anyway.

It is likely that Blacks will do so, because of the historic nature of electing a Black president. But for other groups, it’s not so clear. Obama will need a big turnout to overcome the white fear factor backlash.

Contradictory Realities

Socialists recognize that lesser evil capitalist politics can never free workers, including white workers, from exploitation and domination. Most socialists and those in favor of an independent working-class party will vote for the independent Ralph Nader or the Green party presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney.

Yet we also understand that the issue of race could be decisive if the Republicans are successful in turning the election into a referendum vote for or against the candidate best able to “protect” whites. Under those circumstances, it may be justifiable to cast a vote against McCain’s race baiting.

The contradiction of the Obama phenomenon is that it reflects two realties. One is the possibility that the world’s sole superpower is okay with having a Black man as its president. The second is the polarization and legacy of racism in the United States: The reality is that the ruling class may be okay with a Black chief executive, but the politicians seeking the job are not ready to give up the traditional privileges of a white monopoly at the highest levels of power.

For socialists the issue of Obama (the unique figure and capitalist politician) is conflicted. On the one hand, there is no doubt that backing a candidate of the most powerful military industrial complex in the world is impossible. On the other hand, the issue of race and racism poses the question of whether the election of Obama is a way to push back racist ideology, as the election of Black big-city mayors began to do in the 1960s-‘70s.

I’m of two mind sets. As a socialist I will vote either for Nader or McKinney to advance the need for class independence. But as a supporter of the nationalism of the oppressed, I’m inclined toward voting against the de facto race-baiting campaign of McCain and electing the first Black president.

During the great U.S. Civil War, Marx and Engels wholeheartedly supported the North against the South. They urged their followers to join the Union Army and help bring about the defeat of the slaveowners. Marx and Engels had no illusions of what that meant for capitalist development and consolidation. But the smashing of the slave labor system and development of a modern day American capitalism was in their view in the long-term interests of the working class.

A body blow to racist ideology by electing a Black man as president isn’t on that order of significance, for many reasons. But it would send a message to a world divided by ethnic cleansing and even worse forms of “tribalism” that citizenship and rights should not be based on the false construct called “race” or the shade of your skin.

ATC 136, September-October 2008