Why race won’t hurt Obama on Election Day

Earl Ofari Hutchinson | 11/5/2008, 4:44 a.m.

Why race won’t hurt Obama on Election Day

Republican presidential nominee John McCain got one thing right about Democratic rival Barack Obama: He told Larry King that he didn’t think race would be much of an issue in the final vote.

As McCain put it, only “a tiny, tiny, minority” will vote against Obama because he’s black. The notion that race is permanently off America’s table just because millions of whites back Obama is more fantasy than reality, but still, despite endless and obsessive speculation that race could derail Obama’s slog to the White House, it hasn’t, it won’t, and it probably never would have.

Why not? Start with McCain’s personal and pragmatic choice not to make race an issue, either directly or indirectly through code words, snide hints and racial guilt-by-association attacks. When the Jeremiah Wright flap cropped up, he could have hammered Obama as a stealth race-baiter. He turned thumbs down on that. Late in the race, when running mate Sarah Palin and others in his campaign were itching to unload on the Obama-Wright connection again, McCain still said no.

That decision was not all about honor and noble intent — a too-frontal racial attack would have brought instant screams of foul play from Democrats and the millions of voters who demanded that the campaign be a clean, issue-focused contest. McCain read the political tealeaves correctly and saw the political peril in flipping the race card. The occasions when McCain slipped and rapped Obama as a socialist and a terrorist sympathizer brought universal condemnation that the Republican was going negative, or worse, running a dirty campaign.

Obama helped things even more. The firm message in his signature slogan of hope and change — communicated in campaign literature and TV ads, at rallies, in pitches to contributors, in his core group of advisors and major endorsers — was that the Obama presidential campaign and an Obama presidency would be broad, non-racial and issue-driven. Anything else would have instantly stirred in many voters horrifying visions of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. His candidacy would have been DOA.

But the candidates’ best efforts to keep race a non-issue in the campaign would have fallen short without a sea change in public attitudes.

The decade since the Rodney King beating, the O.J. Simpson murder trial and the urban riots has been a period of relative racial peace in America. During that time, polls have consistently showed that more whites than ever are genuinely convinced that America is a colorblind society, that equal opportunity is a reality, and that blacks and whites are closer than ever to attaining complete social and economic equality.

The figures on income, education and health care still show a colossal gap between poor blacks and whites; nonetheless, the perception is that racism is an ugly and nasty byproduct of a long-gone past. The passage by huge margins of anti-affirmative action measures in California, Michigan and Washington was not simply a case of whites engaging in racial denial or covering a hidden bias — many white voters backed the initiatives because they honestly believed that color should never enter into employment and education, and that race is divisive.