Can Barack Obama be a Champion for Working-Class Whites?

To be the first African-American president, Barack Obama needs to be seen as a uniter and not a divider on race. Much of the public excitement over Obama is rooted in the hope that a black president will propel the … Read More

By / March 19, 2008

To be the first African-American president, Barack Obama needs to be seen as a uniter and not a divider on race. Much of the public excitement over Obama is rooted in the hope that a black president will propel the U.S. to a new era of racial harmony and color blindness. The controversy over Obama’s longtime pastor, Reverend Wright, has threatened to dampen that excitement, and therefore derail Obama's candidacy.

Yesterday, Obama sought to alleviate these concerns in his “race speech.” This may be his most important speech since his endorsement of John Kerry for president at the last Democratic national convention. And Obama delivered it with all his eloquence and grand vision. He expressed the need to focus on issues that indeed unite Americans of all races and socio-economic classes. Obama is correct that,

“We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina – or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright's sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she's playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies. We can do that. But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we'll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.”

Yes, this can happen, but it should be avoided. Obama is uniquely positioned to help us move past the “distractions,” to move past race as the divisive issue. And yet, as far as I can tell, he has no interest intention of making that happen if it requires anything more than pretty words.

Obama talked about those issues that affect all of us. He talked about the issues affecting the black community. He addressed anti-Zionism. But he avoided explication of those issues that affect only some others: whites. The fact is, Obama tolerated a man who is racist as his spiritual mentor. For a very long time. Until the public made him stop.

If this is causing him problems in the Democratic primary, how much more so will it be a problem in the general election if he is the Democratic candidate? He can’t merely explain himself by expatiating on the history of discontent and suffering that afflicted and still afflicts the American black community. That will simply not suffice. Not now. Obama tried to play one race card to knock out another race card, noting,

“I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”

Bullshit. We don’t choose our grandmother. But we do choose our spiritual leaders. Now Obama needs to offer something substantial. He needs to prove that his disagreement with his pastor is not mere sentiment and phrasing, but real policy differences. He needs to prove he truly wants to move America past its racial divisions.

To do that, Obama—at least once he has the Democratic nomination—needs to categorically reject racially based affirmative action programs. He needs to give that to whites if he is to defeat McCain. He needs to prove to whites that he feels for them not only as Americans, but also as white Americans. White Americans who are so overwhelmingly against affirmative action that the social left is resorting to devious machinations to knock referendums on the matter off state ballots rather than submit to the will of the voters . For good reason. Heck, even the famously liberal Jewish community swerves right on affirmative action.

Obama needs to be whites’ champion too—specifically against the discriminatory policies against them. Anything less will fail to dispel the shadow of racism and contempt cast onto his campaign by his pastor. Anything less will prove insufficient to win the trust of enough whites to win the presidency.

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