Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Much has been made of the assertion that race is an element in many votes that will be cast against Barak Obama this year. A fair question may be asked as to whether this is a reflection of a deeply ingrained racism, or if there is at least the possibility that race is an incidental factor in a more general concern.

If some people are moved to vote for anyone but Obama because his father was black, a decent curiosity would prompt one to ask "Why?" It may be, of course, that some people distrust, hate, or fear anyone of African appearance. That this is in fact the case is supposedly illustrated by the hypothetical "If Obama were to choose an African American as a running mate he would be less likey to be elected, and this is because Americans are too racist to vote for an all-black ticket, regardless of the qualities of the individuals." In fact, if Obama were to select a black running mate, he would be less likely to be elected, but not because people simply do not want a black person to be president.

The issue is not one of race, as much as the perception that a candidate will advance a narrow agenda. This is the reason that John F. Kennedy had to clarify the role that his Catholicism would play in executive decisions. The reason that his speech to Baptist ministers was effective was because the issue was not whether he was Catholic or not, it was whether he would pursue Catholic interests as president.

The public does not want an executive whose priorities lie in a narrow, insular agenda. Consider if a ticket composed of Hillary Clinton and Madelein ALbright ran against a ticket of Patricia Ireland and Kate Michelman. Who do you think would win? How about if Tom Tancredo ran with Pat Buchanan? The odd fact is that single issue voters will vote for politicians that agree with them on a given issue, but few people will vote for single issue candidates.

Barak Obama must contend with the suspicion that he harbors a narrow, black-centered agenda. This is part of the fallout from his association with Jeremiah Wright, who has been explicit in advocating for such an agenda. If Obama were to pick an African-American running mate who is associated with the same views, Obama will be viewed with the same suspicions that John Kennedy faced regarding his religion. Unfortunately, Obama probably would not be given the benefit of the doubt, even if he chose a black running mate with less activist background, such a Colin Powell. People who might otherwise vote for Obama might become suspicious that he thinks race is important, and on that basis decide that his motivations are to narrow for President of the United States. It may not be fair, and it may not be old-time bigotry, but it is part of the politics of perception.

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