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True Colors

How do you measure racial progress?

11:00 PM, Feb 14, 2008 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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Pew also found that "most blacks believe that racial discrimination remains a pervasive fact of life." Yet 53 percent of African Americans "say that blacks who don't get ahead are mainly responsible for their situation, while just three-in-ten say discrimination is mainly to blame. As recently as the mid-1990s, black opinion on this question tilted in the opposite direction, with a majority of African Americans saying then that discrimination is the main reason for a lack of black progress."

Now we may be approaching what some consider a landmark measure of black progress: whether or not Americans will elect a black president. Should Barack Obama capture the Democratic nomination, the November election might well be portrayed as a litmus test of the nation's racial enlightenment. That's surely how many foreigners--and many Americans--would view it.

Yet this would be unfair to Obama and unfair to his opponents. Whatever motivates his supporters, the Illinois senator has not played the race card to curry favor with blacks and has not made overt appeals to white guilt. This is part of the reason why so many white voters--including some who disagree strongly with Obama on public policy--find his candidacy so compelling. To frame Obama's election as a referendum on U.S. race relations would be to ignore the essential message of his "post-racial" campaign.

It would also put Obama's critics in an impossible bind: opposing him would be painted as standing athwart historic racial reconciliation. On Election Day, some of Obama's opponents might vote against his inexperience. Some might vote against his liberal record. Some might vote against his national security agenda or his health and tax proposals. But it seems clear that most would not be voting against his skin color. After all, Obama has already won Democratic primaries or caucuses in some of America's whitest, most conservative states, including Idaho, Kansas, and Utah, despite running against a former first lady with a robust campaign machine.

Indeed, when Obama visited Idaho a few days before Super Tuesday, "more than 14,000 people turned out to pack the Boise State University Taco Bell Arena, many waiting in lines outside for more than an hour in the morning cold. That is nearly three times the number who turned out for the state's Democratic caucuses in 2004," reported Alec MacGillis of the Washington Post. "Plenty of folks in the crowd were independents and Republicans."

In a December 2007 Gallup poll, 93 percent of Americans said they would vote for a well-qualified presidential candidate even if that candidate "happened to be black," compared to only 53 percent who gave that answer in July 1967 and 37 percent who gave it in July-August 1958. As Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom point out, the November 1996 exit polls indicated that Colin Powell would have beaten President Clinton by 11 points--and "another poll shortly after had Powell smashing Vice President Gore by 28 points in the presidential contest in 2000."

Whatever the outcome in 2008, the nature and success of Obama's campaign thus far have prompted a renewed discussion of racial progress and how it should be calibrated. That discussion transcends any one political figure. Obama himself seemed to anticipate this in a February 2007 interview with National Public Radio. "African-American politics," he said, "is weighted with extraordinary history--often painful and tragic history. And so I think my candidacy for the presidency is going to bring to the surface a whole bunch of stuff. A lot of it won't necessarily have to do with me, but will have to do with the country being in a dialogue about where we are now, how far we've come, and how far we have to go."

Duncan Currie is managing editor of The American.