One presidential candidate has brashly played the race card. It wasn’t presumptive Republican presidential candidate John McCain or his rival Barack Obama. Both have tipped lightly around race in the campaign. But Ralph Nader didn’t have any qualms about bring race into the campaign. The perennial political gadfly accused Obama of saying and doing nothing to threaten the white power structure. If Nader had stopped there he might have opened up a reasoned debate on whether Obama panders to corporate interests in his stance on high gas prices, home foreclosures, the lack of affordable heath care, the Iraq war wind down, corporate and environmental regulations, and labor protections. This might have prompted some to ask does Obama rise to the standard of a politician who has actually sold his political soul to corporations and the Beltway establishment?
But Nader didn’t stop at criticizing Obama for being a Beltway insider. He asked rhetorically “Is it because he wants to talk white” as to why Obama supposedly doesn’t take hard stances on these issues? He then tossed in a reference to Jesse Jackson as an example of someone who Obama allegedly doesn’t want to sound like because he obviously sounds black. He didn’t tell exactly how he thinks an African-American is supposed to talk too avoid sounding white.
The one thing Nader got right is that Obama doesn’t sound like Jackson. But this has absolutely nothing to do with him talking white. It has everything to do with him wanting to win. The instant that Obama declared his candidacy the buzz question in the press and among much of the public was whether an African-American could be a viable candidate for the presidency. This was quickly followed with the question of whether whites would vote for an African-American candidate for the highest office. From the first start of Obama’s campaign the overwhelming majority of whites said they do not vote for candidates based on their color but based on their competence, ability and qualifications. The polls show that whites continue to say that Obama’s color is of no concern.
For his part, Obama early understood the potential minefield that race poses to his chances, and that even the slightest perception that there is a racial tilt in his campaign would render his campaign DOA. He has said and done everything possible to sell himself and his campaign as race neutral and all inclusive. He’s stuck tight to the script in which he talks almost exclusively about the broad based issues of the Iraq war and the economy.
That script is too bland and saccharine to have much meaning to Nader. He’s spent decades and three presidential campaigns blasting political cronyism, two party dominance, corporate greed and malfeasance, war mongering and profiteering. He plainly regards Obama as a corporate candidate who has no antidote to those ills. Nader could have easily made that point without racially knocking Obama. But he did knock him, and the only real explanation is that Nader holds Obama to a totally different standard than he holds McCain or any other white mainstream politician; a standard that’s based solely on his color. Put bluntly, because he’s black he must be by definition in Nader’s eyes an inherent rebel or at the very least actively challenge the white corporate and political establishment. But that assumes that blacks are instinctive rebels because of their color. Earth to Nader on this one; the likes of blacks from Clarence Thomas to Colin Powell should have long since dispelled that myth. Yet, to even think that blacks should be open racial crusaders is crass, cynical, and even borderline racist.
The only standard that Obama can and should be held to is the one that governs mainstream politicians. Obama’s a centrist Democrat, a consummate party loyalist and Capital Hill insider. Any change he could effect could come only from working within the tight and narrowly prescribed confines of Washington politics. Race has little to do with that. And even if that wasn’t the case, Obama likely still wouldn’t be on the frontline of the racial battleground.
He belongs to the younger, post-civil rights generation. That generation did not experience the terror of snarling police dogs, fire hoses, racist sheriff’s batons, and Jim Crow segregation. They did not fight prolonged battles for equality and economic justice in the streets as those of Jackson’s generation did. The racial battleground for Obama’s generation has been in the courtroom, corporate suites, and university boardrooms. He fought those battles as a student at Harvard University, as a poverty organizer and civil rights attorney.
Obama blew off Nader’s racial dig at him as a ploy to get attention by an aging political crusader whose political star has since long dimmed. Nader certainly wouldn’t have gotten that attention if he had just rapped Obama for his alleged corporate and insider political sins. But then again that wouldn’t have been Ralph.Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).