For Obama, Race Remains Elephant in the Room

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Chris Gardner / Getty Images

Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama speaks during a Sept. 4 rally in Lancaster, Pa.

On a swing through Pennsylvania last month, John McCain visited a Manheim Central High School football practice — not to ingratiate himself with the players, who weren't even old enough to vote, but to identify himself with the gritty, down-home, lunch-bucket values of small-town football. "This is a blue-collar town," Manheim's coach said in his introduction of McCain. "We don't have a lot of flashy athletes. We don't come out with a lot of flash." But the coach explained that his team works hard, plays with discipline and comes through in the end. "A lot like John McCain," he said.

If you're familiar with the code words of the sports world, you've probably already guessed that Manheim's players had something else in common with McCain: they were white. On the other hand, athletes who are described as "flashy" almost invariably have something in common with Barack Obama. I'm not saying the coach was trying to inject race into his discussion of flashiness. I'm saying that sometimes we talk about race even when we're not talking about race — in presidential politics as well as sports. Sports announcers have at least made an effort to shed their stereotypes; they occasionally describe black players as "scrappy" or "blue collar," adjectives that used to be reserved for whites. But for political pundits, "working class" or "blue collar" or even "small town" voters still means white; blacks have their own category.

Race is the elephant in the room of the 2008 campaign. In West Virginia's primary, one out of every four Hillary Clinton voters actually admitted to pollsters that race was a factor in their vote; that may be an Appalachian outlier, but even in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio the figure was a troubling 1 in 10. It's a tribute to America's racial progress that a biracial man born before Jim Crow died could come this close to the presidency, but if you believe that contemporary America is color-blind, you probably also believe the Georgia Congressman who recently called Obama "uppity," then claimed he had no idea it was a traditional Southern slur for blacks who didn't know their place. ("Uppity" often modified the slur everyone knows is a slur.) Blacks are still known as "minorities" because this is still a majority white country, and Obama is just as anxious to avoid running as "the black candidate" as McCain is anxious to avoid running as "the Republican candidate." (See photos of Barack Obama's family tree here.)

This is something to keep in mind now that the Thomas Friedmans and Arianna Huffingtons of the world are imploring Obama to get angry, to shed his above-the-fray cool and fight back against the McCain campaign's silly-season accusations that he's a charismatic chauvinist who wants to teach kindergartners how to have sex. Over the past 18 months, Obama has been attacked as a naive novice, an empty suit, a tax-and-spend liberal, an arugula-grazing élitist and a corrupt ward heeler, but the only attacks that clearly stung him involved the Rev. Jeremiah Wright — attacks that portrayed him as an angry black man under the influence of an even angrier black man.

(See photos of Barack Obama on the campaign trail here.)
(See photos of Barack Obama backstage at the DNC here.)

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