The Race Question

After Sen. Barack Obama won the Jan. 3 Democratic caucuses in white-as-snow Iowa, he and his campaign wasted no time trying to put one idea to rest: that white voters would never accept the candidate because of his race.

But some African-Americans remain unconvinced, and their doubts could undermine Obama's presidential campaign, a possibility that grew after his defeat in the New Hampshire primary.


Don't get black voters wrong - they say he is their pride, their cause for excitement and hope that the future will hold more acceptance and better times.

After Obama's victory in Iowa, Melissa Harris-Lacewell, an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University, watched him on TV as he stood on the stage facing a mob of supporters, his black wife and daughter by his side, doing the presidential wave.


"I woke up my 5-year-old daughter and said, 'Look, look, look!' " said Harris- Lacewell, who supports Obama. "Because it's just so beautiful."

Still, even as most plan to cast their votes for Obama, blacks of varied class and education levels say they are worried that his skin color could keep him from the White House - or, if he makes it to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., he won't be able to achieve a hoped-for new era in race relations.

Voters are concerned about his relative lack of political experience, surveys indicate. Obama has a lot of competition from Hillary Clinton for the black vote, partly for that reason, said Ronald Walters, a government and politics professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"You can't get past the major reservation, which is the reason a lot of people went to Hillary in the first place, which is that Hillary can deliver the goods," said Walters, who said he supports Obama nevertheless. "The biggest concern is that he hasn't been in public life as much as Hillary."

Beyond experience, race looms as a potential obstacle. From the day Obama seemed likely to run for president, blacks have expressed concerns that he would lose the primary or general elections because of his race, said Michael Dawson, the John D. MacArthur professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

"A substantial number of black people do think he will win the nomination and the general election," said Dawson, who does not publicly support any candidate. But "the doubts certainly linger."

In a close election, Obama's race could be his downfall, said Daniel McDougal, 26, an African-American barber at Beltway Barbers in Greenbelt, hours before the votes were tallied in New Hampshire. Whites "are not ready for a different ethnic race in there," McDougal said.

Those doubts were expressed statistically in a November report by the Pew Research Center. Nearly four in 10 African-Americans thought that Obama's race would hurt his chances in the general election, even if he won the Democratic nomination, according to the study.


The fear that Obama's ethnicity might lower his chances of election increased after he lost in New Hampshire despite a lead in the polls that seemed to foreshadow a win. The primary raised suspicions that whites were telling pollsters they would vote for Obama, when they really intended to vote for one of his white opponents.

"Often, people say one thing in a poll and do another thing in the voting booth," said Robert Smith, a political science professor at San Francisco State University who supports Obama.

Older African-Americans are especially anxious about Obama's chances, political scientists said, because they remember past promising black candidates who polled well but did not win the numbers game.

Tom Bradley, the 1982 Democratic candidate for governor of California, is one oft-cited example. Polls showed him leading his white opponent by a large margin, but Bradley was soundly defeated when Election Day came around.

Some also mention a few close-call victories, including those of Harold Washington, who became Chicago's first black mayor in 1983, and L. Douglas Wilder, winner of the 1989 Virginia gubernatorial election. The African-American Democrats had unquestioned leads over their white Republican adversaries in the polls, but ended up winning by a hair.

But that's all in the past, Obama has said, arguing that his phenomenal success is a testament to America's great progress on race relations - progress enough to elect the first black president. Many black voters agree.


"He said he had more faith in white people than that," Smith said. "People thought that white people in downstate Illinois would not vote for him, but that was proven wrong."

Some doubtful black voters look past Obama's electability, focusing instead on his potential to fulfill their expectations. Many look to Obama to help African-Americans overcome social and economic disadvantages but doubt that he has the credentials or clout to make a difference. Others worry that race problems are essentially beyond Obama's control, that his efforts to address them may be written off as too personal or that he seems unlikely to even try.

Nearly three-fourths of African-Americans believe racial equality cannot be achieved in their lifetimes, if at all, according to a survey released in August by the NAACP. But after a year encompassing Don Imus's ethnic slurs, the Jena Six controversy and nooses hanging around the nation, a number of African-Americans said they would be satisfied with a candidate who would at least bring them a few steps closer to equality.

For many, Obama is that candidate. But others say his election could raise false hopes.

"His election as president will not give him the opportunity to address the problems of black people any more than the election of Clinton," predicted Smith. "The expectations that he will solve the problems of poor black people will be raised and then dashed."

In fact, Obama's status as a black president might hamper any efforts to solve racial problems, Smith said."It would appear that this was special favoritism, that kind of thing. John Edwards would be in a better position to talk about race to Americans in a policy way than Barack Obama."


Some blacks said Obama's intelligence and popularity should calm doubts that he would be an effective president. They note that many voters, young and old, black and white, have been inspired by his powerful message promising change.

"Look where we have gotten so far with politicians that have a lot of experience," said Leon Harrison, 78, an Upper Marlboro retiree. "You don't have to have all the political experience in the world, but just have good common sense and know how to make people do the right thing."

Detractors point out that Obama rarely addresses racial disadvantages in speeches, worrying that he is trying to eliminate racial inequalities by ignoring them and that his lack of talk now could translate to lack of action later, said the University of Chicago's Dawson.

"Race would seem like an easy issue for him to talk about," Dawson said. "His refusal to do so raises some red flags, I think."

But many black voters believe that Obama does care and that his lack of racial rhetoric is purely a campaign tactic, Dawson noted. At the state level, Obama was an active supporter of liberal causes that benefited African-Americans, such as health care and government reform, noted Walters.

"He's got a record in the Illinois state legislature that proves he's sensitive to those questions," Walters said. "You can't sponsor legislation that is racial, but you can sponsor legislation that is liberal."


An African-American in the White House might undermine arguments that widespread racism still exists, Harris-Lacewell said, a perception already bourne out on a smaller scale with the appointments of former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and his replacement, Condoleezza Rice.

"It would be hard to talk about continuing inequality," Harris-Lacewell said. "A black president could be the ultimate focus, the ultimate example of how everything is OK."

Some black voters interviewed last week said such arguments were so obviously wrong that they wouldn't go far. Smith pointed to Ralph Bunche, the Nobel Prize laureate who held positions in the State Department and United Nations before his death in 1971.

"People said, 'You can't eat Ralph Bunche for lunch,' " Smith said. "The implication being, his success had nothing to do with whether a poor black person in Harlem could get a job."

One anxiety accompanying Obama's candidacy has nothing to do with politics or electability but rather safety. The fear that Obama could face violence like black leaders before him has been present since he started campaigning and has increased since his victory in Iowa, voters said.

Older blacks who remember the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X seem most fearful that Obama is in danger, but the possibility is being discussed by many African-Americans, political scientists and black voters said. Some said they have heard it come up occasionally; others said they talk about it every day.


One reason Colin Powell decided against a presidential bid was that his wife was worried for his safety, voters point out. "I'm only 34 years old, and my father remembers very well growing up with the terror of lynching as a young boy in Virginia," Harris-Lacewell said. "Parents talked about how to behave in public to avoid being murdered. This is fresh. It's such a part of who we are in this country. So it's not alarmism; it's a part of the racial history of this country."

The idea that Obama in danger because of his race misses a larger point, some blacks say. Plenty of prominent politicians have been shot no matter their race, they argue. "Look at the Kennedy boys," said Leon Harrison, 78, an Upper Marlboro retiree. "Even Reagan was shot."

Despite their worries - for Obama's electability, his ability to promote racial justice, his safety - many black voters said they watch him campaign with a tangible thrill.

"Let's face it, he's not God, now," Harrison said. "But he's better than what we've had in the last eight or 16 years."