The Threat of Race: PRESIDENTIAL RACE by David Theo Goldberg

The Threat of Race

PRESIDENTIAL RACE by David Theo Goldberg

Barack Obama’s candidacy for the American Presidency has proved that racism in America is pretty much a thing of the past. Whether or not he wins, a black man has broken the barrier of racism in American politics. His candidacy has proven how inconsequential racism has become in a land long scarred by it.  If a black man can rise to the nation’s highest office and can occupy the most powerful position in the world, racism can be no more than the sometime pernicious, occasionally violent but decidedly intermittent expressions of misguided individuals. The deep commitment to freedom of expression means that the country will just have to put up with these anomalies. It is the price to be paid for America’s unstinting commitment to liberty.

Or so mainstream political pundits would have it. And perhaps America’s Main Street too.

Underpinning this position is the presumption, sometimes a charge, that any invocation of race is wrong. Whether to signal differentiated experiences, to explain pernicious treatment, or to indicate unfair burdens borne, invoking race is considered a wrong worse than the experiences, treatment, or burdens themselves.  Expression, it seems, is free so long as hewing to the prescribed script. Some, it turns out, are freer than others. And that freedom  still very much tracks racially.

To keep insisting that Obama introduced race into the presidential campaign by saying he doesn’t look like past presidents on America’s paper currency is to keep introjecting race into the campaign. It is to keep reminding the electorate that Barack Obama is black, “not like us,” different than “we” are used to, a “risky choice.” And to do so in the guise of insisting that in this polity one should not now publicly speak of race by naming it; race can only be spoken for the most part by indirection. ThatObama is black introduces race into the campaign; which is another way of saying that in America a serious black presidential contender still inevitably makes race a factor. Just as an all-white field would but only silently, without mentioning it, making it a non-thought.

Why should this surprise? One of George W. Bush’s Republican Convention Committees had three joint honorary chairs, each representing America’s major minorities (blacks, Hispanics, women). This at a party convention the racial minority delegates for which comprised less than 5 percent of the total. The point, of course, was to attract “target of opportunity” votes.  For a polity in which race and gender are to make no preferential distinction, they clearly have remained compelling variables in the political calculus.  It may be illegitimate to name race; but the denial is at once to re-affirm its tentacled hold.  Perhaps the very point of the persistent denial.

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