Obama’s Race Card

by Bruce S. Thornton

Private Papers

The liberal media are in full Captain Renault mode, “shocked, shocked” to find race injected into the presidential campaign by a “Swift-boating” John McCain. How shameless can you get? The Obama campaign––indeed, the whole of Obama’s public existence––is about nothing other than his perceived race as packaged and peddled by the media. And as each day passes on the way to November 4, Obama and the media expose the incoherence and hypocrisy that corrupts our public understanding of race in America, all the while distracting us from the real issue––Obama’s failed liberal ideology.

How else explain the media’s adoration of a political tyro, if not by white fascination, anxiety, and guilt about black people, as enshrined in our racial received wisdom? If Obama were white, his messianic narcissism and gaseous rhetoric would have strangled his presidential bid in its cradle. And let’s not forget missteps like his 20-year relationship with a racist buffoon, or his serial flip-flopping, or his gross miscalculation in opposing the surge in Iraq, or his uncertainty about the number of states in the Union. The media would have long ago banged the gong on any white candidate that inept. The Obama phenomenon, however, is understandable if one examines the fundamental contradiction lurking in liberal white America’s attitudes towards race.

On the one hand, the Civil Rights movement presumably rejected the racialist essentialism that underlay segregation. The American civic religion, we were reminded, recognizes rights and worth in individuals, not categories, and particularly not in dubious, pseudo-scientific categories such as race. Thus government must treat citizens as individuals, the accidents of skin color or hair texture being irrelevant. On the other hand, at the very moment the Civil Rights legislation enshrined in law this affirmation of the American political creed, the Sixties spawned multicultural identity politics, the child not of the Enlightenment but of the Counter-Enlightenment, specifically German romantic nationalism. Now identity is the fruit of one’s group and its mystic, immutable qualities that those outside the group cannot ultimately understand or judge (“It’s a black thing; you wouldn’t understand.”) Moreover, these minority identities are predicated on being victims of white racism and oppression. The only acceptable stance for those outside the group is acceptance, tolerance, celebration, and compensatory preferences.

That these two sets of values are irreconcilable and indeed must conflict is obvious––as Obama himself illustrates. Only by a supposedly discredited “one-drop” rule that predicates identity on a genetic accident can Obama be considered “black,” given life experiences so untypical of the average black American. Rather than a victim of racism, Obama has been the recipient of preferential treatment based solely on his racial status. Rather than transcending race, Obama’s public persona––and 90% support among black voters––is explicable only by that fabricated racial identity. Thus the swift attacks on anybody who states these obvious truths, as Geraldine Ferraro and the Clintons can testify. Yet at the same time, we hear over and over how Obama’s candidacy can move America “beyond race.”

This racial double standard––race is unimportant except when it’s important–– has become the norm in American political and popular culture. You will be judged by the content of your character, the university admissions officer piously quotes Martin Luther King––but then he’ll give you preferential treatment based on the color of your skin. And how does he pull off that contradiction? By indulging stereotypical racial qualities and experiences thatevery black person possesses merely because he is black, and which supposedly will contribute to the “diversity” of the campus. This racist nonsense has been validated by the Supreme Court, which in Grutter v. Bollinger ruled that race can be a factor in selecting students because it furthers “a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.” This despite the fact that no empirical evidence has demonstrated the presumed “educational benefits” of admitting a middle-class black kid ahead of a middle-class white one, or even specifically documented those race-based qualities, ideas, or experiences that make this black student so “diverse” from his white peer.

Such reasoning works only an essentialist view of black identity that trumps the particular experiences of individuals. All blacks share the same culture and are victims of racism, and so any black person will provide “diversity.” This simplistic view of human identity is the received gospel on race in America, and goes a long way to explaining Obama’s candidacy. Indeed, Obama himself is discovering the power of this racialist ideology he has so successfully exploited. As part of his tack to the center in search of moderate voters––and in contradiction to his earlier claim that affirmative action is “absolutely necessary”–– Obama recently suggested that maybe economic class should factor into preferences. Given that his own daughters “have had a pretty good deal” in life, Obama said, maybe they shouldn’t benefit from affirmative action. Enter Charles Ogletree, a black professor at the Harvard Law School, who scolded his candidate by asserting that Obama’s “daughters are not going to be judged in a colorblind way throughout their lives.” Of course they won’t: added to the manifold privileges accruing to the children of a rich Senator or maybe President will be the affirmative-action privileges based on their presumed status as black victims of endemic white racism.

This melodrama of racialist identity, one endorsed and propagated by the liberal media, has functioned to distract us all from the simple fact that Obama is the most programmatically liberal candidate ever to run for President. Most of his ideas, from taxation to foreign policy, embody failed liberal pieties long ago exploded by the facts of history. Time will tell whether the racialist fantasies that have fueled Obama’s candidacy are powerful enough to get him to the White House.

©2008 Bruce S. Thornton

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