President Barack Obama this month launched “African Americans For Obama.” This video shows Obama with an articulate and moving message tied to African American month, but is it the right message? There is no question this is a direct appeal to race as a unifying theme with supporters — a move that would be denounced if tried by his white opponents. In the video, Obama states “I don’t think there’s a better time than Black History Month” for this effort, but some view this as the worst time for an open injection of race as a motivating factor in politics. I am frankly divided on the issue because I can see the justified pride of this community in President Obama. However, I remain uneasy over a direct appeal from the President on race — just as I have criticized past appeal to sectarian religious groups by presidential candidates.
It has long been a touchstone of American politics that appeals to race are dangerous and divisive. That certainly does not mean that race is not a factor in politics. However, the common open references to race that marred prior elections in the sixties and even the seventies were considered things of the past. If African Americans are united by their racial bond with Obama, does that mean that other candidates can appeal openly to white communities? Clearly other communities organize around their common identities from Cubans to Koreans to Italians. However, organizing solely on the basis for skin color should raise some legitimate concerns and objections, in my view. Indeed, we have strongly condemned past candidates who made even veiled references to race.
One answer could be that blacks have a shared history of oppression that whites lack. This history gives them a special bond not found in other communities. I do believe that argument has merit. Yet, this is a significant change in the long-standing aversion to open appeal to race as a unifying theme.
It is an interesting issue that is worthy of debate among people of good faith. It is not just limited to politics (though that tends to be the most unnerving). There is a growing movement toward incorporating race and gender distinctions in public policies. I have previously written about how we have reinforced segregation principles in our schools and prisons (here and here and here). I do see the distinction drawn by those who see a clear distinction for African Americans and I find aspects of that argument quite compelling. However, in the long struggle to remove race from politics, this troubles some of us.
On the social level, there is also a growing trend toward voluntary segregation. There is an array of race-based dating sites, the most prominent being BlackPeopleMeet which advertises widely. Once again, the question is the likely response to a dating date for white people. Unlike religious dating sites which deal with communities with established religious practices and limitations in dating, a race-based dating site offers a form of voluntary segregation.
It creates an interesting contrast in how our laws treat real and virtual meeting spaces. The Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination or segregation in places of public accommodation. Thus, a public restaurant cannot adopt the exclusionary practices as the place “where Black people eat” or “where White people eat.” Yet, presumably these sites are restricted to members of particular races. These are perfectly legal as associations, of course.
I also realize that associations have long been defined on exclusionary groups from Italian-Americans to Irish-Americans to share cultural norms and practices. Moreover, I do not question the right of people to choose racially exclusive associations — as much as I abhor them. I understand that people feel that they need the shared experiences and culture in such sites. I support the right to have such sites and association regardless of my dislike for racial exclusionary practices. However, I believe this trend — particularly in politics — undermines rather than advances the cause of men like Martin Luther King and the successes highlighted during Black History month. To that end, I think that the President is being a bit irresponsible in organizing part of his campaign along racial lines. I have leveled similar criticism on this blog and in columns over candidates making sectarian appeals to their own faith groups. A reference to a candidate’s own faith can have the same divisive (if unintended) impact on our political discussion.
More than anyone else, a president should be a unifying figure in our country. I did not vote for Obama because he was black and I do not believe that people should support or oppose him on that basis now. What is fascinating is that Obama doesn’t even need to organize along race. He has always received overwhelming support in the black community. Yet, his campaign has decided to take this step despite the inevitable criticism for “playing the race card.” While race will continue to play a role for many citizens in their voting, the President should stick to “Americans For Obama” rather than organize citizens according to their race in my view.
What do you think?