The Threat of Race

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The Threat of Race by David Theo Goldberg Now available from Blackwell Publishing and

Monday October 27, 2008

PRESIDENTIAL RACE by David Theo Goldberg

Posted by David Theo Goldberg 3 comment(s)

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. That Obama 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.

In a neoliberal political economy fueled by insistent and far-reaching privatizations, radically deregulated financial practices, and their attendant individualizations—of property, of services, and indeed of permissible pernicious expression—explicit racial invocation in the public sphere or related to governmental practice is beyond the pale, impermissible. Freedom of expression protects private use of racial differentiation so long as no government purpose, interest, or resources are in play. It’s not that racial registers are ended, as a consequence, whether segregated housing or differential hiring practices, race-coded data collection or plain old epithets, provided they are outside of governmental reach as either fiscal or regulatory determinants. The Threat of Race spells out this logic and its implications in considerable detail.

In the public sphere, it has followed, code words have come to rule, even as invoking race explicitly itself has been rendered as charged as racism, has come to be the prevailing condemnation of racism on the part of a conservative polity. It has become increasingly commonplace for whites to complain of victimization as much a consequence of affirmative action policies as of black crime and violence, or of high taxes to support welfare for the supposedly idle far more readily identified with people of color than with whites.

Consistent with this neoliberal disposition to racial denial and white claims to victimization, the McCain campaign has sought at every opportunity to adopt the stance of racial victim. And with the persistent, careful, and paternalistic—dare one say patriarchal—management of the Palin annunciation to the Vice-Presidential ticket, of sexist victimization also. Anyone, it turns out, can suffer racism and sexism, even the racially powerful, even white male senators running for the pinnacle of power. Standpoint epistemology reduces here to relativized victimhood.  Claiming  the position establishes the fact so long as one had the standing, the authority to claim in the first place. And standing, like authority, has been racially grounded as long as the socio-logics of race have been at work.

In fact, the present political season seems to have redrawn the map concerning racism and sexism. If the former is largely under control, the heated rhetoric of the campaign season seems to imply, sexism, the glass ceiling, and the social and economic burdens women bear remain huge hurdles.  Saying anything critical of a well-placed, ambitious woman, this suggests, is to say something, well, off-color. Saying anything about a black man, by contrast, is fine so long as you don’t mention that he is black. Even while you wink or blink at it.

So the question that seems to circulate repetitiously is whether America is ready for a black President. The analogous question raised about whether a woman—this woman–is ready to be Commander-in-Chief no doubt would be deemed sexist. Note that the question about America’s openness on the face of it is about national disposition while that about Commander-in-Chief is about an individual’s preparedness.  And yet their reception, they way the questions are read, is inverted: The issue of national disposition is quickly taken up as one of racially qualified preparedness on the part of the candidate; the issue of individual qualification devolves into a critical comment about gendered capacity. This, of course, is not to say that racism in the presidential primaries and campaign has been worse than the sexism; both have been abundant.  It is, rather, to question the manipulative logic of their interaction.

If there is an answer to the question about whether Americans are ready for Barack Obama to lead them, it may seem from the polls (misleading as polls can be) that they are about half-ready.  Which is to say about half are really open to it, or don’t give a damn about the barely hidden issue, and something approaching half the electorate are not.

Perhaps many of those who are not will say it is not about his race. That in part may be true; it is very hard to disarticulate. But during the primaries almost one-fifth of white voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia admitted race was a factor in their vote choice, and they were not opting for Obama (of course, one could reverse the argument regarding the African-American vote, as Obama himself has noted). The numbers are notoriously under-counted, given the reticence of voters these days to admit openly to racial preference.

A study conducted by Stanford University researchers for the Associated Press and Yahoo, just released, bears out how deep-seated these racial registers remain. ( The study is perhaps more reliable than most. Respondents were questioned on computers rather than face-to-face, a method the anonymity of which has a history of more likely eliciting accurate expressions of people’s views on sensitive subjects.

More than half the whites polled registered harsher senses of blacks than they did of whites. While 50 percent of white respondents at least sometimes have had sympathy for blacks, nearly half had never or rarely. Similarly, more than 30 percent of white respondents have never or rarely admired blacks. Nearly half the respondents characterized blacks as at least moderately violent, and 38 percent as lazy.  (A pdf fie of the raw data  from the Stanford study is included here.)

Lest one think that generally stated racial prejudice does not necessarily translate into bias against a particular person, the study also revealed that 47 percent characterized Obama as “inexperienced” while just 4 percent did McCain, 17 percent as “un-American” and just 2 percent did McCain, and only 29 percent “patriotic” while 61 percent did McCain. Just under 20 percent consider Obama’s religion “a reason not to vote for him,” perhaps a less surprising if still deeply disturbing fact considering that 14 percent still think he is a Muslim.

Statistical extrapolations from the data suggest that Obama’s support in the presidential election would be approximately 6 percent higher than any poll reveals but for white bias against blacks. The numbers hold even for registered Democrats. Similarly, Andrew Hacker projects that the “Bradley gap” or “the political price of being black” expressing the difference between those who say they will vote for a candidate and those who, because of race, actually will not, in Obama’s case is 7 percent  ( Anyone who still thinks race no longer signals privilege or handicap remains the proverbial ostrich.

John McCain brushed off a question about how he feels that a perhaps not inconsiderable number will vote for him because he is the white candidate by “rejecting the premise.” Resorting to the rationalization that there are a few bigoted outliers and there’s not much to do about them, he added (not very articulately) that there will always be “a small minority of every kind of opinions and views.” Which in the absence of an explicit rejection is to convey that he is quite at ease with receiving their vote.

Many not open to Obama may be better disposed to “the right” black man, to a “better” black candidate, just not one who seems not quite black enough but still too black; who may be Muslim even when he’s not (as though this too should matter as it does in a Christian country that supposedly doesn’t concern itself politically with religion); who is too elitist even when he grew up in modest circumstances and started as a community activist and his opponent is many times wealthier and out of touch with everyday working lives than he; who, as Brent Staples has pointed out, has in every public pronouncement painfully to choose his words especially carefully so as not to emphasize his blackness; who supposedly lacks experience even as his record oozes it and where experience seems in some to prompt corruption or flip-flopping or outright lies; and whose name is an anagram for Ackbar.  Clearly not one of US.

At the Values Voter Summit in September, underwritten by the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian group, two well-known crusader-provocateurs were selling boxes of waffle mix adorned by a bug-eyed Aunt Jemima image of Obama. The top flap of the box featured Obama in a turban, accompanied by the slogan, “Point box towards Mecca for tastier waffles,” slighting in the process not just a presidential candidate but one-fifth of the world’s population too.  The “collector’s item” was selling for $10 a box, appealing to the collector’s sensibility and testament to the entrepreneurial spirit ( No race here? It has simply been suppressed from explicit public elevation into the untouchable realms of privately circulated expression and public innuendo.

Obama’s positions on key issues are now well known following eighteen months of scrutiny, three national addresses, more national television dates than anyone but the media cares for, a heavily publicized trip abroad, and daily press overage.  And yet following just two weeks of national attention, just one national interview and a hands-off policy by her campaign handlers, America has been ready to declare Sarah Palin  “one of us,” as John Ridley smartly put it in his blog, in a way Obama’s strangeness never could be. 

What else could explain this difference, could explain the repeated insistence among whites interviewed that Obama plans to raise taxes on the middle class when he expressly plans to do just the opposite while Sarah Palin’s views are considered to be known with certitude even as she has repeatedly lied about almost every key commitment she has held and, like her boss, both lied about the lies and refuses to give any details on those commitments she has left open to doubt. The Pinocchio Pair. Or could explain that within a day of the political conventions, considered by the press to have made little difference in substance to persuading people one way or another, white men in particular (at least initially) were flocking to the Palin-McCain ticket? Nothing to do with the fact that the pale one is a good-looking, gun-toting, ass-kicking white woman, now could it? (Apply the same characterizations to a black woman and what do you get?  A welfare queen?  Jackie Brown? A radical? A revolutionary?)

A person with property is one with properties, with qualities.  McCain is a man of his word even when he is blatantly bending the truth like Beckham’s penalty kick, a man so propertied he knows not which are his, a man of the property to forget everything but his formative experience in a foreign prison for a crime supposedly not of his own making (invading an alien country, a country full of threatening aliens). A prison which made of its surviving prisons men, unlike contemporary American prisons which breed violence, dependence, recidivism. A prison that reinforced his hitherto godless Christian faith, even if his narrative of resurrection was apparently lifted from Solzhenitsyn.

Obama, by contrast, has “weaknesses,” lacking the properties of powerful strength, of manly courage, of soldierly honor (even if McCain cannot define honor, all that counts is that he knows it when he sees it, and he sees it not in his opponent).  He lacks experience, the capacity to lead, owns property only with the help of an indicted fraudster (in contrast with an heiress wife), has a half-brother living in a hut in a foreign place called Kenya (as opposed to a couple of denied siblings-in-law, both Democrats, living modestly while at least half or so of his thirteen properties and cars go unused). A man lacking quality.

Whites, white men especially, seem to trust Palin even as she misrepresents every one of her accomplishments or misdeeds. They find her authentically like them because she apparently is one of them. She even makes McCain more appealing, more one of the boys, a member of middle America. No matter that Palin holds views more extreme than most, and indeed than McCain himself, that the facts belie her rhetoric on every register: on taxing and spending, on deficits, on hiring and firing, on her national and international experience, on her governing achievements and their lack, on her claimed reforms and their apparent strong-arm, business-as-usual (ine)quality. And that election of the McCain-Palin ticket would result in justices so extreme that a woman’s right to choose would be in jeopardy, that deregulated financial markets at the heart of the current fiscal crisis would be extended if not enlarged, that executive power would remain as opaque as it has been the past eight years, that deficits would spiral (if her legacy in other offices is anything to go by), that America’s international reputation would continue to spiral downwards.

Palin, the colorfully pale one makes it possible for those who cannot bring themselves to vote for a black man not to. Even though it may be in their best political and economic and national interests to do so. While making it appear that they are not doing so on racial grounds. That they are doing so on any grounds but racial ones. That Palin was deemed instantaneously believable is deeply connected to the recognition of her national kinship; that Obama has struggled among many whites to register as credible is as deeply connected to the fact that he is not similarly recognized.

If the legacy of affirmative action is anything to go by, white women fare far better than black men in hiring, admissions to college, income scale, and promotions. In politics too, if levels of representation are the index.  In the US, those in positions of power to effect hiring, admissions, promotions, and political access tend overwhelmingly to be white men. White men tend to be more at ease with those they take to be more like them racially than unlike them on traditionally gendered considerations.  Familiarity is more often than not a function of imagined familiality. And familiality of a supposed familiarity that has deep if unstated racial resonances, that in short is racially indexed. These senses of familiarity and familiality may follow from feeling that they can exercise control more effectively, or that they relate better because women tend to look or act or emote more like the partners they tend to have.

A man of considerable dignity (even when resorting to his Chicago street cred politically honed instincts), Obama too has aspired, perhaps understandably, to reach–to be–“beyond race.” Only to be drawn rudely back, pushed and pulled from both ends into racial identification. “You are a black man, don’t go forgetting that now. No matter your white mother.” One drop, all it takes. The fist bump.  Basketball, not once but twice a day. Sex education before your kids can read (must be in the genes). McCain’s most pernicious TV commercials invariably include images of an especially leering, sneering, menacing Obama, sometimes consorting with other black fraudsters, subtly coded reminders of Willie Brown and Jesse Jackson, if not also more disparagingly of Willie Horton and O.J. Simpson. ( Britney and Paris, America’s wayward daughters, beware.

Mixture, I argue in the book, is a principal neoliberal good, a virtue considered to fuel commercial intercourse.  Mixed race, after all, is hip du jour. But too much of it might make a black man arrogant, think he has access to the highest echelons of power, “uppity” exactly, as Georgia Republican Congressman Lynn Westmoreland recently characterized Obama in a public interview. What Rush Limbaugh in all his considerable wisdom mockingly calls “a magical negro,” a “haf-rican.” If some doors of opportunity have opened, don’t go getting any big ideas now that you can move into the Big House.  The White House.

What we find in the case of a politics of race, then, is an exacerbation of electoral politics generally. It is, namely, a world of make-believe.  A politics of make-believe, a fantasy politics as a politics of forcing belief, is one that seeks to make the world (up) as a domain of epistemological investment, that sustains belief by ordering the parameters of possibility. The world of make believe is that in which journalists or autobiographers, financiers and realtors, politicians and presidents shape worlds to sustain credibility of the commitments they wish to project or for which they stand. “Fact enhancing fiction, and vice versa,” as a recent New York Times headline put it. These are not worlds that seek, or seek to establish, accuracy.  They are not even deceptions, for that would presuppose a concern with veiling the touchstone of truth. Rather, they seek to entice into a state of belief, a world-making, so as to induce the securing of commitment by the polity to their positions for personal, pecuniary, or political profit.

Until the moment of recent economic meltdown, when they could no longer avoid it, the McCain campaign sought to evade any discussion of pressing issues.  They sought to turn the election into a discussion of character, longstanding ground for racial insinuation, appealing to the sort of racial latency revealed in the Stanford study.  Obama is not presidential, not really American or at least American enough, not American at least in ways presidents need to be.  How could he be for his country above and before all if he has close kin in Kenya (country of conflict, turmoil, and the bombing of the American embassy), when he puts self-interest above or before national interest?  When he was reared by a step-father who was an Indonesian Muslim? He is too intelligent, too intellectual, too thoughtful, too heady, too gracious. Too European (recall Berlin)? Well, in any case, too wordy, too preacherly.  Too Jeremiah Wright. Too black!

As Drew Westen has pointed out (, a Republican ad in the 2006 Tennessee senatorial race, in which African-American candidate Harold Ford was the Democratic contender, asked “Who’s the Real Tennesean?” In a recent ad, a John McCain commercial circulates a similarly coded sensibility inflected with race: “The American president Americans have been waiting for.” You’re not American if you vote for the other guy, because the Other Guy is no American at all. You better believe it, before it’s too late.  The Muslims are coming, the Muslims are coming.

In eschewing issues in favor of character, Republicans –always the high stakes rollers (Wall Street, circa September 2008)—thought they recognized a deep character trait of the American public.  When things generally get bad, Americans seek distraction.  Go shopping even if the credit is maxed out; after all, it’s easy enough to land a new card even in tight credit markets. Few if any questions asked. Suspend a campaign. Entertainment tonight.  An evening with popcorn at the movies or in front of network tv’s sitcoms or American Idol, Survivor or Project Run(a)way.

Sarah Palin’s Vice-Presidential announcement turned the Republican convention into a beauty pageant.  And it seemed for a moment a stroke of genius.  The swift turnaround in opinion polls suggested McCain intuited something deep if cynical about the American public psyche.  The opinion polls looked actually to become, well, Nielsen ratings. Palin was the show stopper. The pinup model. The cut-out photo-op could be foregone because the cut-out now was the real thing. Guy gets his gal and rides off on a horse into the sunset—to go moose hunting or at least chomp moose-burgers at the local Macdonalds. Or pimps her in a bare-it-all beauty contest at a Harley-Davidson shindig.

Pity the booty evaporated in the fading light of the American economic sunset.  Not two weeks later half of America walked out of the movie or Hooters into the twilight of the Republican economic debacle, to watch the stock ticker twittering away the last vestiges of value in their pension plans. Make believe shattered into a nightmare of government bailouts in a heartbeat.  Socialist corporatism turns out to be the flip side, the warranty, of neoliberal free marketeering. America’s principal creditor, Chinese neoliberalism, may indeed be the model (and not just economically). Can you hear the patriotism pin clanging as the global economy skids across the chips in the marble floor?

Make-believe just lost its holler.

In the race to be president the question to be pressed because it has been made so pressing is what race means to the presidency.  Is race part of—even basic to—being presidential, so embedded in the image of what it means to be the American chief commander that it is the presumptive, the touchstone of sense-making, the truth of the polity? Race, of course, is concerned most obviously with look. But it has to do more deeply also with normative expectations about action, demeanor, diction; with assumptions about experience—where one has been in life, who one has consorted with, what can be expected of one. To be elected, a black man has to look less black, act more white, be more like Ike than Mike.  But can a leopard change his spots? Or a white electorate forego for once its self-protecting but paranoid structural privilege, its structure of belief, its possessive investment?

Anyone who doubts that this structural privilege is cemented into the polity might consider the discounting of votes by people of color generally, black folk in particular.  As Andrew Hacker reports, nationally 13 percent of black men are precluded from voting because now or previously incarcerated.  In a swing state such as Virginia it is 20 percent, in solidly McCain Kentucky 24 percent.  In Colorado, another closely contested state in this election, there is a proposition to ban affirmative action on the ballot, and this is likely to bring white Coloradans opposed to affirmative action to the polls in November. It also has a way, as Drew Westen remarks, of reducing Obama to an affirmative action candidate, not properly qualified for and so undeserving of the position.  While it is likely all this would favor McCain, it is entirely possible of course that some whites opposed to affirmative action would still vote for Obama, and do so on the merits.  Never too pessimistic that hope will prevail.

What makes race today less easy, less straightforward to negotiate is that none of this can be made publicly explicit, as I have been suggesting.  It is coded so that privately expressed preferences—choices—are shaped by or predicated on its codes while any hint of public expression is disavowed.  So that any hint of criticism or rejection of the reference is undercut and those insisting on it are made to seem foolish, extreme, misguided. Unpatriotic.

In the end, that America may not be ready to be led by Obama is turned into the rationalizing criticism that he is too inexperienced, too self-interested, too lightweight, not (yet) ready to lead America out of the fog of war, debt so deep from eight years of mismanagement it threatens to bankrupt the wealthiest nation on record. Back into a world so skeptical of current American arrogance it pines for him. That’s a great set of projected burdens and handicaps–of white privilege as Tim Wise puts it–to overcome (Time Wise, “This is Your Nation on White Privilege,” The weight of race.

And yet, no matter. Obama has managed a nearly $300m two year campaign. And, as he points out, he’s still standing, despite everything that’s been thrown at him. He has transformed not just the political stage but how politics is conducted, he has revolutionized the use of technology, brought more younger people than was thought possible into the political process, transformed how to think about the political instrumentalization of social networking technology (and not just for purely self-interested political purposes). Perhaps America’s youth is more mature than it is given credit for. He has faced down the Clinton family political machine, no mean feat, remained ultra cool under intense pressure, revealing a capacity for sound judgment in the face of the most withering of attacks. Indeed, he has for the most part sought the postracial ground in the face of decidedly racial constraints, doubts, innuendos, and character assassination. A whole lot more than one can say about the hazy, hot and humid rhetoric dripping from the sweaty pores of the opposition.

All this is not to say that black politicians, this black politician, cannot be criticized; quite the contrary. Obama has waffled, slipped, slid with best.  He has been vague, but less so than his opponent.  He has occasionally pandered to an imagined centrist electorate seeking votes that may be more readily garnered were he true to himself. In any case, one might be excused these days for thinking more generally that Charles Rangel spells his name “Wrangle.”  Or that the credibility of the political system freezes over when a Congressman  hides $90,000 in kickback funding in his home freezer. But let’s not forget that for every Rangel there’s a Ted Stevenson, for every William Jefferson a Duke Cunningham, for every Rezko a Keating. And for every Cynthia McKinney a Phil Gramm. If race is a factor here, there is equal opportunity blame to go around.

The larger point, rather, is that in engaging black candidates for most any status position in this society, people, politicians, and pundits should be (self-)critically mindful of the racial authority and its rationalizing stereotypes from or on which they advance their claims.

The Palin-McCain ticket (even McCain is suggesting, in jest of course, that Palin should replace him as the headliner) stands for a polity homogenous culturally as much as axiologically, ideologically as much as demographically.  Witness the whiteness of their campaign events, the standardized script of their statements, not just the narrowness of their world view but the dismissive character of their sometimes contemptuous, disinterested, and uninformed view of the world (“I know Russia since I can see it from my rear window”).  By contrast, Obama and running mate Biden represent an America made, historically as much as contemporarily, through a fabric of deep connection in and to the world, a comprehension of the thick, mutually informing ties within and across the global make-up.

If the former are for extending America’s insistent unilateralism and persistent administrative opacity, the latter reflect as they reflect upon the relative transparency and openness a commitment to freedom demands. The appeal of Obama’s candidacy is his openness to the heterogeneity of ideas, values, culture, and interests that make the world and this time so challenging, but also so engaging. The Pinocchio Pair, like the secretive strong-arms they are seeking to follow, sees the challenges as little more than threats—to security, to competitiveness, to the American way of life and wealth, and America as the MPs keeping order in a chaotic world.  The OB duo are seeking at least to an encouraging degree to break with the fearful disposition to everything un-American (read non-American), appreciating that as goes the world so goes America and not just an arrogant projection of the vice versa.

A significant aspect to the difficulty Obama has faced in convincing perhaps a portion of already skeptical voters and a sometimes hostile media has had deeply to do with America’s morphing racial obsession. America is far from over it, quite the contrary. If we are to take seriously the challenges of establishing equitable conditions for living in a globally circuited polity as ethnoracially heterogenous and cosmopolitan as our wired world, these are the complex of considerations that should be alive to the political process in this presidential race.

Irvine, California
September 27, 2008

3 responses to “PRESIDENTIAL RACE by David Theo Goldberg”

  1. Corey Ponder says:

    Very well said. I will have to check out this book. I wrote an article on Race and Politics in my blog a few days ago. This issue resonates with me.

  2. Andy says:

    I enjoyed reading this piece but I would like to get a better understanding of what leads the author to believe that people in the media or elsewhere think that if Obama becomes president that racism will have been proven to no longer exist or to exert strong and pernicious effects on our country. Obama has certainly not asserted that and I have not heard anyone in the media assert it either. Perhaps I am not reading/listening to/watching the right news sources. As an active volunteer with the Obama campaign in Virginia, I meet many McCain supporters – some more bellicose than others – but I have never gotten the sense that McCain’s supporters intend to vote for McCain because he is white and one of them, as opposed to black and not one of them. I’d appreciate more information from the author on the sources that led him to his conclusion.

  3. Ludovic says:

    To track these kinds of dog whistle politics visit

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