Does Obama’s Winning Streak Prove that Race Doesn’t Matter?

Obama stands for a new kind of politics, and many Americans approve of that message.

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The Tiger Woods of politics, Obama might draw people who have grown weary of partisan gridlock back into the voting booth.

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The big question now, though, is whether Obama's campaign can move enough Americans beyond their attachment to the dominant style of identity and special-interest politics. Given who Obama is, it is no small irony that that style began to take shape in the civil rights era of the Fifties and early Sixties, as the older system of machine and party politics was dying. The urban machine had served blacks at best unevenly, but it was of no use in overcoming the structural barriers of Jim Crow segregation and de facto disenfranchisement. And so a grass-roots movement dedicated to securing the full rights of black people emerged, galvanizing support and making headway through demonstrations, sit-ins, and other organized efforts to register voters and challenge racial barriers.

As a successful black civil rights movement morphed into a movement arguably focused more on securing particular, identity-related benefits—such as affirmative action—rather than leveling the playing field, it became the model for other identity groups, from women to Hispanics to people with disabilities.

The civil rights movement also contributed to the rise of what Boston College political scientist Peter Skerry calls "public interest politics," with scores of organizations emerging to protect the environment, defend children, or bring about campaign finance reform. Lacking the tight bonds between leaders and followers that typified machine politics or even the older political parties, public-interest politics depended on publicity and the media to focus the public's attention on their favored issues. As Skerry says, "It is a style of politics that is extremely rhetorical, exaggerates conflicts, and emphasizes grievances." First associated mainly with liberal and progressive causes, it has long been adopted by everyone from conservatives and libertarians opposed to taxes to fundamentalist evangelicals protecting family values. So we now have it: politics as a televised national shouting match, with intractable gridlock on issues of pressing national concern. And Skerry doubts that even so skilled a politician as Obama can change or even escape this political reality. "I welcome the rhetoric," Skerry says, "but I don't think he is the transformational leader everyone thinks he is."

Others agree. Among them is author Shelby Steele, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and controversial conservative critic of race-based politics in contemporary America. In his new book, A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win, Steele argues that entrapment in black identity and identity politics will ultimately hold Obama back. Steele claims that Obama chose "blackness" partly out of a desire to connect with an absent father he barely knew. While it is debatable that any racial identity is freely chosen in America, Obama himself has written eloquently of his efforts to forge connections with black America, whether through his work as a community organizer in South Side Chicago or through his membership in a strongly Afrocentric church.

More controversially, though, Steele insists that Obama's cultivation of "blackness" led him to deny, or at least downplay, the values by which his white mother raised him, including a strong work ethic, a code of personal responsibility, and a traditional liberal emphasis on universalism over the particularities of race. "He goes," Steele says, "to a black nationalist church that his mother would not be comfortable in."

Race bargaining. Steele concedes that Obama uses his blackness more subtly than an earlier generation of black leaders and that this milder "bargaining" style is the heart of his appeal, particularly among white liberals seeking expiation from their own sense of collective historical guilt. But even this form of race bargaining will ultimately limit Obama's appeal, Steele contends, because it will not allow him to be honest enough about those values (conservative ones, in Steele's reckoning) that have enabled him to succeed in his own life. "He can articulate the conservative value system very well," says Steele, "but he still looks to government to do everything."