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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Will Obama’s Template Transform Race Relations?

We have to be careful about making too many generalizations about Obama’s election. After all, McCain did hoist his sails in the perfect Democratic storm, which hit ferociously on the final lap, no less. For a change, we Dems got every conceivable break. But Obama tacked into the storm with awe-inspiring confidence and calmness. In this context, Gary Kamiya’s article, “Obama and Race: Silence is Golden” just up at Salon.com is instructive. Kamiya’s larger point is that Obama’s non-racial strategy provides not only a template for getting African Americans elected in predominantly white constituencies; in so doing, he may also have transformed race relations in America. As Kamiya notes,

Barack Obama’s 100-day-old presidency has already had a remarkably positive effect on race relations in America. When asked, “Are race relations in the U.S. generally good or generally bad?” 66 percent of Americans answered that they were good, with just 22 percent saying they were bad. Asked the same question last July, 53 percent said race relations were good, 37 percent bad. The number of black respondents who said race relations were good doubled since the earlier NYT/CBS poll.

Kamiya adds,

It’s not surprising that having a black president has caused Americans to take a sunnier view of race relations. For blacks especially, the ascension of a black man to the highest office in the land is cause for enormous and justifiable racial pride, the kind of deep personal validation that history rarely offers. The fact that millions of whites voted for Obama has obviously made blacks feel more hopeful about white racial attitudes.

The feeling that a corner has been turned is so strong now, that opponents of renewing the Voting Rights Act preclearance provisions are using it to bolster their arguments. African Americans are rightly suspicious of the argument — one election does not prove that racial injustice has been eliminated at the polls.
Still, Obama’s election and presidency have turned our racial dialogue upside down, as Kamiya argues:

We are a country used to talking endlessly about race but not doing anything about it. Obama is doing exactly the opposite. He is not talking about race, but that very fact, combined with his high popularity, has advanced racial harmony more than any utterance could do…But Obama’s silence about race, and the positive consequences of that silence, could also be the harbingers of a subtle but fundamental movement away from America’s dominant approach to race, one based on the idea that “we have to take race into account in order to get beyond it.”

I tend to agree with Kamiya to a point. But I found Attorney-General Holder’s remark about America being “a nation of cowards” for not talking more about race strangely out of synch with President Obama’s grand strategy, which is a version of T.R.’s ‘speak softly and carry a big stick” strategy. Leverage the powers of the presidency to advance racial justice, but without a lot of clamor.
Something about the feeling Obama’s presidency conveys is reminiscent of the brief period in the early sixties, just before the Beatles hit the U.S.A., when African Americans and millions of white kids were spending their dough to purchase the same music — that would be the Motown sound. Only now the shared currency is pride in a young, dynamic President, who happens to be Black.
As for the new era Kamiya hopes for, we may be disappointed if race relations revert to past patterns. But President Obama’s example will almost certainly inspire more young African Americans to run for elective office using his template. Many will win, is my guess.

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