I've struggled with writing this post (and Lord knows, if you're seeing it on the site, that will be the only sign that I managed to work through it), because talking about racial politics in America is always a dicey prospect.
We live - I live - in a country that struggles with its difficult history on race issues - from slavery to the civil rights era, our treatment of wave after wave of immigrants (most recently those from Central and South America), the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II... the list is longer and the history more complicated than most people like to admit. It is a story at odds with a fundamental American belief that our history is hopeful, upbeat and positive. We are a nation of happy endings, of success over adversity, a land of possibilities.
All of which, I think, explains what we're not talking about when we talk about Barack Obama.
Since Iowa - and indeed, before it - we've been subjected to a multitude of pieces suggesting that Obama, with his electoral success in largely white Iowa, has "transcended race". That conclusion is easier I think, then the more frank assessment: Obama makes it comfortable for people to vote for him by not bringing up any of the difficulties we have associated with race.
This appeals most, I'm realizing, to white liberal males. From Ezra's over the top appreciation after Iowa to a number of others, it's men more than women, and whites more than blacks, who hail Obama not just as a change agent, but as a solution to racial difficulties. Bob Herbert's more clear-eyed assessment of Obama on
Sunday Saturday, or Cokie Roberts surprisingly sanguine view of the Obama wave on Stephanopolous this Sunday both acknowledged Obama's success without overstatement. Even more tellingly, Donna Brazile (also on Steph) and Clarence Page (on McLaughlin), were very circumspect in regards to Obama's success, noting his appeal, but not suggesting that they themselves were wildly on board.
The thing is we're being told, by whites, that Obama's appeal - to whites - is proof that "race is no longer the issue it once was." But the question is... to whom? Obama will not, until South Carolina, face a significant portion of the black community voting en masse. And though it now appears that he is leading there as well, it's not at all clear that black enthusiasm for Obama is anything like the near religious, Kennedy-like fervor of whites (especially Kennedy-like, given that Obama's appeal to older Boomers and folks in my Mom's generation plays into their longstanding support for Civil Rights).
The sense that this can't last is palpable; many online writers and dead-tree columnists have raised the spectre that conservatives will be using racist attacks, and soon, to derail Obama, if not by the fall, should he be the nominee. But, really conservatives are already seeing that forest for the trees: coded racial messaging like the famed "southern strategy" of years past when used on Obama is no longer code, and they get that. It's all too clear that questioning Obama, especially for conservative whites, even in the most measured way, will probably get branded as "racist"... and that's before the stuff that will, actually, be racist.
But as with John Kerry in 2004, liberals are trying to prevent something (in that case, attacks on being soft on defense that were supposed to be a non-issue with Kerry's war hero status) that's probably not the problem. The problem is that at some point, Obama either has to shake up the comfort level of whites on race, or risk being seen as not black at all (something that many mixed race children, me included, know all too well). Either one could hurt him, given that Democratic majorities are built on the bedrock of near unanimous black community voting and the continued appeal of civil rights to a segment of white voters. And if, instead, we elect our first black President without looking at what it is to be black in America, now, still, with our racial politics so unresolved, we are, yet again, putting off a reckoning that won't wait forever. No matter how we try to not talk about it.