Race and the 2008 Election

Recent events have seemed to focus attention on the ways “race” is a factor in this year’s presidential election. In particular, pundits and analysts are looking to race as a divisive and potentially volatile issue in the remaining months of the Democratic primary process.

Today’s Los Angeles Times, for example, features an article titled “Race returns to fore in Democratic contest,” quoting some who say of the Democratic contest: “This is a virtual race war, politically.” At the same time recent analyses of the Mississippi Democratic Primary highlight the profound differences in the vote both Clinton and Obama received along racial lines. Whites voted for Clinton by a margin of 72 to 21 and Blacks chose Obama by a margin of 91 to 9.

It is important for us to keep in mind that “race” has been a part of every presidential election in United States history. Even when the candidates have all been “white men,” ideas framing who is an appropriate choice for the office have been informed by racial ideologies. For more than two centuries, executive power and “whiteness” have mutually constituted each other, where what is “presidential” has had as much to do with race as it had to do with gender.

Framing the candidacy of Obama as a historical event injecting race into U.S. presidential politics is, simply, inaccurate. What his candidacy does do is expose the unacknowledged and historically contingent ways race (namely, “whiteness”) has been a force in shaping leadership and power. By not meeting a “traditional” criteria of leadership, Obama’s mere presence subtly exposes the tension between the ideals of a colorblind society and the harsh realities of two centuries of the exact opposite.

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