Race in '08

PUBLISHED: August 27, 2008

To say that race is not an issue in the presidential election is like suggesting that race was not an issue when Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Of course race is an issue, one that is clearly unresolved in 2008.

Unfortunately, race seems only to enter the discussion among those biased enough to oppose Barack Obama on racial grounds. For everyone else, and that's a vast number of blacks and whites for whom electing a black president is a dream on par with putting a man on the moon, the racial issue is off limits. These voters, the ones who could put Obama in the White House, want too much. They want a racial victory without acknowledging the racial battle.

The Obama Campaign should be making race in America a central issue. Rather than ducking for cover when opponents protest use of the so-called "race card," Obama should declare that, yes, race is an issue - one that he and the Democrats are proud to address.

Of course this approach spoils things for progressive thinkers who view Obama as a post-racial candidate. But with polls reflecting inexplicable support for John McCain; with whispers about the Bradley Effect, by which voters tell pollsters one thing and then cast ballots differently; with the raft of unfounded attacks regarding Obama's background in e-mails and on the Internet, it is clear that we are not a post-racial nation.

Back in the primaries, which seem so long ago, Senator Obama crafted a brilliant campaign that separated him from Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and others for whom the presidency seemed primarily a civil rights trophy. Obama made clear that his focus was ending the war, providing health care for all Americans, eliminating unreasonable tax advantages for the wealthy, and restoring the American Dream for citizens of all races. Moreover, he demonstrated convincingly in speeches and debates that his is by no means an affirmative-action candidacy; he is fully qualified to be president.

In the early going, Obama offered such a soft sell on race that until Iowa's white voters gave him a surprising boost there was even reluctance to support him among blacks. A succession of primary victories changed that, and now the black vote is fully assured. Yet, Obama has simultaneously stepped back even further from race as an issue.

His last forceful message on the subject came in the well-received speech he delivered in Philadelphia last March. "Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now," Senator Obama declared that day. But race has since been virtually ignored by his campaign.

A notable exception came in early August when Obama delivered a stirring speech in Orlando in which he cited Dr. Martin Luther King's warning that racial justice and economic justice are inseparable. "You know that you can't take that seat at the front of the bus if you can't afford the bus fare," said Obama. "You can't live in an integrated neighborhood if you can't afford the house. And it doesn't mean a whole lot to sit down at that lunch counter if you can't afford the lunch."

The message was spot-on and would have resonated well in a stump speech to a general audience. But Obama's audience that day was the National Urban League, and he was campaigning to the choir.

The overriding fear among Obama's supporters is that if race becomes a focus in the election, bigots will flock to McCain. A more reasonable assessment is that they're already there.

Last fall, Barack Obama spoke about the legacy of civil rights marchers in the 1960's. "They didn't brave fire hoses and Billy clubs so that their grandchildren and their great-grandchildren would still wonder at the beginning of the 21st century whether their vote would be counted; whether their civil rights would be protected by their government, whether justice would be equal and opportunity would be theirs. We have more work to do."

That is a rallying cry that voters are waiting to hear today. The Obama campaign has more work to do, and his acceptance speech in Denver would be a good place to start.

(c) Peter Funt. This column first appeared in the Monterey Herald.

Index of Previous Columns