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Race Against History

Joliet, Illinois—"Sloppy drunk" is not a term that warms the hearts of advance men, the people responsible for making politicians' events run smoothly. It is, however, a fairly apt description of at least a quarter of the audience at the Will/ Grundy County Annual afl-cio Dinner on this Friday night in late April, just before State Senator Barack Obama arrives to make a pitch for his U.S. Senate campaign. At 9:00 p.m., a couple hundred union members are gathered in a banquet hall whose hard linoleum floor, institutional ceiling tiles, and decorative band of Christmas lights give it the feel of a high school cafeteria. Joliet is only about 45 minutes from downtown Chicago, at the center of Will, one of the suburban "collar" counties that surround the city. But, culturally, it feels much farther away. The women's hairdos are noticeably bigger, the men a little heavier. Everyone appears to be drinking beer and cocktails from clear plastic cups. And, as I walk in, an emcee reminds the audience not to forget about tonight's "50-50 raffle," in the working-class Illinoisan accent "Saturday Night Live" made famous. Another thing not likely to warm the hearts of advance men: watching the warm-up act for your boss rant about the infernal treachery of politicians. George W. Bush carried Will County by a few percentage points in 2000; in 2002, Republicans swept just about every local office here. But you'd never know it listening to Margaret Blackshere, the diminutive president of the state afl-cio, who gives the speech directly before Obama's. Blackshere carries on for what must be 15 minutes about corporate greed, the exploitation of workers in Beijing, and the uselessness of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. And, while her message seems to resonate with the audience--a group of ironworkers assures me that everyone here is concerned about the migration of jobs overseas--her tone is a little jarring. The speech's crescendo is a surprisingly militant indictment of not only the president ("I'll be damned if I'm going to let George W. Bush and his cronies destroy us"), but of any politician who would "wrap themselves in our flag." "Thank you very much, Margaret, we have our work cut out for us," is the only thing the slightly stunned emcee can think to say once she finishes.

When Obama is finally introduced, he's at no such loss. A self-described "skinny guy from the South Side" with a mild country drawl, his broad smile and high cheekbones make him an impressive figure on stage. Obama frames his speech as a playful introduction to himself. ("When I first ran for state Senate ... [people] would call me 'Yo Mama.' And I'd have to explain, 'No, it's O-bama'-- that my father was from Kenya, from Africa, which is where I got the name ... and that my mother was from Kansas, which is why I talk the way I do.") But, more than that, his speech is a call for uplift so earnest it would make John Edwards blush. "People would ask me, 'You seem like a nice guy, you're a churchgoing man, got a wonderful law degree, great future ahead of you, why in the heck would you want to go into something dirty and nasty like politics?' But I tell people the reason I got into politics is the same reason that people decided to form unions," Obama says. "And that is that we are all connected as one people. ... If there's a child on the South Side of Chicago that can't read, that makes a difference in my life, even if it's not my child."

And it works! This crowd of nearly drunken local union heavies--which, ten minutes earlier, had been incited to rip the limbs off the first politician it could find--is visibly moved.

It's an even more impressive feat given that white, blue-collar voters have never been particularly hospitable to African American candidates. Indeed, over the last 40 years, despite the advances of the civil rights movement, black politicians have made almost no progress representing anything but predominantly black areas. Since the 1960s, there have been only two African American senators and a single African American governor--none of whom are currently in office. The reason for the poor showing is that African American candidates for statewide office nearly always end up in a catch-22: Attempts to motivate their African American base usually alienate white moderates. And, when black candidates try to tailor their message to white moderates, they dampen enthusiasm among African Americans and liberals.

Obama is one of the very, very few African American candidates since the civil rights era to whom these constraints don't seem to apply: Despite having run as a black progressive, he managed to win over white, blue-collar Democrats across the state in this winter's Illinois Senate primary, taking 53 percent of the vote. That's nearly unheard of in a seven-candidate field, one which included multimillionaire Blair Hull; Dan Hynes, the scion of a prominent Chicago political family (and the current state comptroller); another African American candidate; and a prominent Latino.

Integral to Obama's success are the factors he cites in his speech: his unusual racial and cultural background. Whereas many working-class voters are wary of African American candidates, whom they think will promote black interests at the expense of their own, they simply don't see Obama in these terms. This allows him to appeal to white voters on traditional Democratic issues like jobs, health care, and education--just like a white candidate would.

Shortly after Obama's speech, I break off from the scrum surrounding him and approach two middle-aged men, who identify themselves as officials from the local branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The first, a short, bearded man, is effusive. He tells me this is the first time he has seen Obama in person and that he especially liked the fact that Obama didn't put anyone down, even Republicans. When he's finished, the second, a heavyset, balding man, slaps me on the back so hard I almost knock his friend over. "The thing about Obama," he gushes, "is that there are no racial lines, there are no party lines. He reaches everybody."

Barack Obama, now 42, was groomed for higher office from pretty much the day he entered the Illinois state Senate in 1997. It was then that Emil Jones, the chamber's powerful minority leader (and now its president), took an interest in Obama's career, personally dispatching an aide to handle his press and strategy. But, despite the lofty expectations, Obama's first attempt to reach beyond the state Capitol was a disaster. In 1999, he decided to challenge four-term Representative Bobby Rush for his congressional seat. But Rush, a former Black Panther and community activist, enjoyed a stature in the South Side's heavily black first district that made him nearly impossible to dislodge. It didn't help that, throughout the race, Rush's campaign painted Obama as an overeducated technocrat from Harvard, where he'd earned a law degree. Obama's campaign naturally interpreted these jabs as cynical nods to black ambivalence about educational achievement. But the damage from intimations that Obama wasn't "black enough"--that he "[hadn't] been around the first congressional district long enough to really see what's going on," as Rush charged--was difficult to contain. "It was a delineation that was effective," says one Obama aide. Obama lost by a two-to-one margin.

But, if Rush made racial identity an issue for voters, it was an issue Obama had long ago resolved for himself. Not that the path to that resolution had been easy. For Obama, the product of a brief marriage between a Kenyan father and a white mother, racial ambiguity was an early fact of life. Obama's mother married an Indonesian man shortly after his parents' separation, and the family moved from Hawaii to Indonesia when he was still in elementary school. Obama recalls in his 1995 autobiography, Dreams From My Father, how his mother fed him a steady diet of idealized black images during his years in Indonesia: "She would come home with books on the civil rights movement, the recordings of Mahalia Jackson, the speeches of Dr. King." It was only at age nine, when Obama stumbled across a picture of an African American who'd tried to lighten his complexion, that he discovered that being black might be a source of shame to some in the United States.

The years that followed were no less confusing. Obama returned to Hawaii the following year to live with his white grandparents and attend the elite Punahou School, where he was one of only a handful of African American students. Obama describes his adolescence as a period of rebellion: His grades slipped, he experimented with drugs, and he generally emulated stereotypes of African American males, even if he could never shake the suspicion that he was just acting a part. ("At least on the basketball court I could find a community of sorts," Obama writes of his countless hours spent playing the sport.) The image finally began to wear thin when Obama arrived at Occidental College in Los Angeles. In one of the morepoignant passages of his book, Obama recounts an exchange he had with two black classmates: Marcus, "the most conscious of brothers, ... his lineage was pure, his loyalties clear, and for that reason he always made me feel a little off balance"; and Tim, who "wore argyle sweaters and pressed jeans and talked like Beaver Cleaver."

One night Obama was hanging out with Marcus when Tim came by and asked for the day's economics assignment. "Tim's a trip, ain't he? Should change his name from Tim to Tom," Obama recalls saying, thinking it was what Marcus wanted to hear. Instead the comment brought a stern rebuke. "Tim seems all right to me," Marcus said. "He's going about his business. Don't bother nobody. Seems to me we should be worrying about whether our own stuff's together instead of passing judgment on how other folks are supposed to act."

What makes both the book and author interesting is that Obama's eventual response to his multicultural background was neither to shun his black identity, nor to shore it up by segregating himself from whites. It was to be racially proud, while striving to succeed in mainstream (and predominantly white) institutions. Obama had moved to Chicago to work as a community organizer not long after graduating from college. Shortly before leaving Chicago for Harvard, he had a meeting with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the charismatic black pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, one of the most socioeconomically diverse all-black congregations in Chicago. Obama was taken with Wright's worldview, perhaps best encapsulated by a Trinity brochure proclaiming that, "while it is permissible to chase 'middleincomeness' with all our might," ambitious African Americans must beware the "psychological entrapment of black 'middleclassness' that hypnotizes the successful brother or sister into believing they are better than the rest of US." Obama would go on to become the first black president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review before returning to Chicago, where he and his wife, Michelle, became members of Trinity.

Race has, of course, always been an issue for African American political candidates, and it has generally compelled their campaigns to take one of two forms. The first--what you might call the Bobby Rush strategy--has been to rely either exclusively on African American voters or on a coalition of African Americans and white liberals, with little attempt to reach white moderates. The last black U.S. senator--Carol Moseley Braun, also from Illinois--essentially pursued this strategy, patching together a coalition of blacks and liberals in her 1992 campaign. (Braun did win over some moderate Republican women, but it was thanks almost entirely to her being a woman in a year when abortion rights and the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill controversy weighed heavily on the minds of female voters. She lost her reelection bid decisively in 1998.) Harold Washington, the only African American mayor of Chicago, pursued an even more racially segregated strategy, winning with just over 51 percent of the vote against his Republican opponent in 1983, in an overwhelmingly Democratic city.

The problem with this approach, of course, is that it has tended to limit African American politicians to areas where African Americans and white liberals add up to a majority. To win elections in parts of the country where culturally moderate whites are the decisive swing voters--which is to say, most of America--African American candidates have attempted a second approach: de- emphasizing race and running to the political center. Perhaps the most successful of these candidates was former Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder, a longtime state senator who first won a dramatic victory as lieutenant governor in 1985. Paul Goldman, a top Wilder adviser who managed the campaign, recalls that he avoided drawing excessive attention to Wilder's race whenever possible-- for example, by declining to cast Wilder in some of his own commercials. Meanwhile, Wilder positioned himself as a moderate on taxes and crime. (One of Wilder's most famous ads featured a local white cop testifying to his fitness for office.) Goldman also relied heavily on Wilder's heroism during the Korean War. The campaign ran on the slogan from Korea to Richmond, he's still fighting for Virginia in hopes of capitalizing on the state's rich military tradition.; Wilder won the governorship by less than 1 percent...

But, though Wilder won both the 1985 race and his 1989 campaign for governor, these episodes testify as much to the limits of his election strategy as to its effectiveness. Wilder won the governorship by less than 1 percent--and even that was thanks to the unusual resonance of his pro-choice views on abortion at a time when the issue was all over the news. "Every time we took the abortion position [off the agenda] and we'd spend the week talking about something else, we'd lose pro-choice Republican women," laments Goldman.

Wilder also fell victim to stereotypes about black candidates, whom whites tend to see as overly tolerant of crime and devoted to government programs that primarily benefit African Americans. "Many of the stereotypes about [blacks] and liberals are the same," says pollster Celinda Lake, a veteran of several statewide campaigns involving African Americans. These stereotypes almost always doom blacks running in majority-white areas. Jesse Helms twice defeated Harvey Gantt, a charismatic black architect and business-friendly former mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, by playing on white resentment of affirmative action. New York state Comptroller Carl McCall lost by 16 points to Republican George Pataki in the 2002 gubernatorial race, even though the state is home to some two million more Democrats than Republicans. And the same stereotypes nearly doomed Wilder as well. Despite his outspoken positions on taxes (he had pledged not to raise them) and social issues like the death penalty (which he supported), campaign polling showed that few white voters actually believed him.

In any case, Wilder was able to run to the center because his status as a civil rights leader--he initiated the fight in the state Senate against the racially divisive state song in 1970--meant he didn't have to worry so much about alienating blacks. Other black candidates haven't been so lucky. Missouri Representative Alan Wheat suffered from low black turnout in his 1994 U.S. Senate race against ex-Governor John Ashcroft partly because of the energy he spent courting whites. Even more instructive about the pitfalls of failing to excite the African American base is the example of Cory Booker, a black city councilman in Newark, New Jersey, whose statewide ambitions were (at least temporarily) derailed in a losing mayoral race in 2002. Booker, a Rhodes scholar and Yale Law School graduate who had actually moved into a Newark housing project to live among his poorest constituents, had been the darling of affluent whites in the New York metropolitan area (who largely bankrolled his campaign). His iconoclastic ideas about social policy--he was, for example, an advocate of school vouchers and faith-based social initiatives--and his impressive cultural fluency (Booker had been president of the Oxford L'Chaim Society) brought praise from conservatives like George Will and Jack Kemp and fawning coverage from The New York Times.

But Booker's campaign foundered on accusations that he wasn't authentically black, which his opponent, incumbent Mayor Sharpe James, took pains to fan. James would appear before black congregations and claim (outrageously) that Booker was receiving money from the Ku Klux Klan. His campaign distributed flyers in housing projects that depicted Booker with an exaggerated nose, to make him look Jewish. ("You have to learn to be an African American, and we don't have time to train you," James would say of Booker.) Meanwhile, the fact that Booker wasn't married lent credence to whispers that he was gay. "My feeling was that the bullshit about Cory's difference--'Is he black enough?'-- made it a lot harder," says one Booker aide.

When Obama entered the Senate race in January 2003, he quickly dispelled any suspicion that he might attempt to replicate Wilder's strategy for appealing to moderate whites. He was unapologetically liberal, outspoken in his opposition to the Iraq war, and proud of the progressive legislation he'd passed in the state Senate. His campaign touted his role in passing a bill intended to reduce the rate of wrongful executions by requiring homicide confessions to be videotaped and another designed to crack down on racial profiling by requiring police to record the race of individuals they searched. Obama also claimed credit for extending the life of a state-sponsored health insurance program for children and emphasized his efforts at creating a job-training program for unskilled workers.

More important, Obama played up his achievements in a way that called attention to his race. David Axelrod, a media consultant and Obama aide who was simultaneously advising John Edwards, believed Obama's biography was perfect raw material for the kind of hopeful themes he was crafting for the North Carolina senator's presidential campaign--particularly Obama's status as the first-ever black president of the Harvard Law Review. "It worked on two levels, " Axelrod says. "For those for whom the knocking down of barriers is important, it was very important. For others, Harvard Law Review was a big credential." In Obama's first advertisement, the telegenic state senator looks at the camera and explains, "They said an African American had never led the Harvard Law Review--until I changed that." The commercial concludes, "Now they say we can't change Washington, D.C. ... I approved this message to say, 'Yes we can.'"

Not surprisingly, white liberals were the first group other than African Americans among whom Obama caught fire. "My moment was a focus group," recalls Obama's campaign manager, Jim Cauley. "The moderator was talking to [liberal, North Shore] women voters, thirty-five to fifty-five and fifty-five plus. He asked the older group, 'Who do each of these guys remind you of?' For [state Comptroller] Dan Hynes, a woman said, 'Dan Quayle.' For [the fabulously wealthy Blair] Hull, she said, 'Embalmed.' And she looked at Barack, and the lady said, 'Sidney Poitier.' At that moment, I was like, 'Shit, this is real.'"

Not long after, Obama ran into a bit of luck. The media turned up evidence that Hull's ex-wife had sought a restraining order against him, and Hull's campaign, which had built a ten-point lead, imploded after the candidate essentially admitted to having abused her. Still, it was by no means clear Obama would become the race's front-runner. His appeal to white moderates remained unproven, and the record of politicians like Gantt and McCall was hardly encouraging. Compounding Obama's problem was a factor almost as immutable as his race: his name. That it would be hopeless to run for statewide office with a last name that rhymes with "Osama" was more or less the accepted wisdom when Obama entered the race.

In fact, the truth is closer to the opposite. In 1993, sociologists Jan Rosenberg, of Long Island University, and Philip Kasinitz, of Hunter College, stumbled across an interesting finding in their study of the Red Hook section of Brooklyn: While white employers in the area were perfectly comfortable--even eager--to employ West Indian immigrants from outside the neighborhood, most were dead-set against hiring local African Americans and Puerto Ricans. One local employer boasted of the team of West Indians he'd hired to guard his factory, but, when asked about hiring local African Americans, remarked, "What, the bums hanging around outside? You want me to hire the guys who are trying to rob me?"

As The New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell explained the finding in 1996: It was not that the employers did not like blacks and Hispanics. It was that they had developed an elaborate mechanism for distinguishing between those they felt were "good" blacks and those they felt were "bad" blacks. "Good" meant that you came from outside the neighborhood, because employers identified locals with the crime and dissipation they saw on the streets around them. "Good" also meant that you were an immigrant, because employers felt that being an immigrant implied a loyalty and a willingness to work and learn not found among the native-born.

The distinction between "good" blacks and "bad" blacks has a rich pedigree in the United States. Sociologists have for decades commented on the differences in the ways white New Yorkers relate to Jamaican immigrants, as opposed to native-born African Americans. And Jamaican immigrants have, in turn, drawn similar distinctions. "The most important element in Jamaican (and West Indian) ethnicity in New York City is a self-perception that Jamaicans are hardworking, goal-oriented, success-driven individuals--in short, achievers," the sociologist Milton Vickerman (himself a Jamaican immigrant) wrote in an article published in the 2001 anthology New Immigrants in New York, which drew on work he did in the 1980s. "Jamaicans assert their ethnic identity to show that they are different from African Americans."

A similar dynamic appears to apply to African immigrants. Paul Stoller, an anthropologist at West Chester University in Pennsylvania who has spent years studying West African street vendors in New York City, notes that, when suppliers learn that a black customer is African, they extend him more generous terms of credit. The vendors "feel that [the suppliers] put them in a different category than African Americans," says Stoller. Other social scientists have made similar discoveries. JoAnn D'Alisera, an anthropologist at the University of Arkansas, who spent three years working with Sierra Leonean immigrants in Washington, D.C., recalls that, time and again, whites would treat her Sierra Leonean subjects differently once they discovered they were African as opposed to African American. "We'd go to the mall, and they wouldn't be wearing African clothing, just jeans and a t-shirt, and [the clerks] would assume that they were African American," D'Alisera reflects. "But, once they started to engage, there would be another response. ... There are a lot of people out there who think that, if you're African, you're more educated, harder-working."

The assumption even holds true in pop culture. In the popular imagination, many African American basketball players are either thugs or hip-hop wannabes, or both. By contrast, every other mention of African players, such as the Congolese-born Dikembe Mutombo, cites the good deeds they do in their native countries or the multiple languages they speak (Mutombo speaks nine). The news coverage of Amadou Diallo, the Guinean immigrant mistakenly gunned down by four New York City police officers in February 1999, portrayed him as a model citizen. "a hard worker with a gentle smile," read a typical headline in The New York Times. The point is that, once voters saw Obama's ads and realized he was not, in fact, an Islamic fundamentalist, Obama's name--or at least its provenance--may have actually helped him, by distinguishing him from other African Americans.

At least that's the implication of the way the race played out. The TV blitz the Obama campaign unleashed in the Chicago metro area during the last three weeks of the race--and downstate in the last six days--paid huge dividends among white voters, particularly in the collar counties, where Obama had done little campaigning. Obama ended up carrying 50 of blue-collar Joliet's 52 precincts. Likewise, he managed to win pluralities in several white ethnic wards in Chicago, the kinds of places Washington lost by huge margins in 1983. And Obama managed to attract white voters without eroding his standing among his core supporters. Indeed, the impressive margins among working-class whites paled in comparison with his margins among African Americans (about 90 percent or higher in ten heavily African American wards in Chicago, where turnout was up as much as 30 percent over recent elections).

Obama performed so well among all demographics that one is tempted to conclude that working-class whites are simply more open to voting for black politicians than they were even five or ten years ago. But that would be a mistake. Anita Dunn, who worked for Hull and sat in on that campaign's focus groups, notes that the only time suburban and exurban white voters ever responded negatively to Obama was when he was associated with more conventional black politicians. "We [showed voters a sound] bite from Jesse Jackson Junior," says Dunn, referring to a video clip of the Chicago congressman praising Obama. "Collar-county voters didn't like that."

The power of Obama's exotic background to neutralize race as an issue, combined with his elite education and his credential as the first African American Harvard Law Review president, made him an African American candidate who was not stereotypically African American. "[Obama] is not stereotypically anything," says Mark Blumenthal, the pollster who ran Hull's focus groups. "He's different. He's different because he's biracial. He's a different generation. He's different in terms of qualifications than nine out of ten people who run for office." Free of the burden of reassuring culturally moderate whites that he wasn't threatening, Obama could appeal to their economic self-interest while also exciting his African American and progressive white base. As Jack Carroll, vice president of the machinists' local in Joliet, explained it to me after I'd asked him about Obama's name (which he had assumed was African): "He needs to talk about labor issues, ... talk about what the Republicans are doing to labor laws. To point out the difference between him and [Obama's Republican opponent Jack] Ryan on labor issues, and he won't have any trouble getting elected."

Actually, it's not even clear he'll need to do that. If Obama can replicate his strong showing in Chicago and hold his own in the collar counties, as the primary results suggest he can, Ryan will have to win upward of 75 percent of the downstate vote even to have a chance. "Obama will come out of the city with seventy-five percent of the vote, minimum. Maybe eighty-five," says one Obama aide. "Ryan will have to get fifty to sixty percent in the collars, then sweep us downstate in a landslide." Should Obama so much as win one of the big collar counties like Will (where his vote total exceeded Ryan's in the primary) or make a reasonably strong showing downstate (where he got 24 percent of the vote in the primary), there's almost no way Ryan could win.

It's not clear how relevant Obama's example is for other African American candidates. There are, after all, only so many former Harvard Law Review editors with African names. Moreover, Obama's ability to be African American in a way that doesn't threaten whites is not the only, or even the primary, source of his appeal. His political talent is largely a function of his charisma, and such talent is, by its nature, not reproducible.

In late April, I accompanied Obama to a fund-raiser for Representative Jan Schakowsky at a downtown Chicago hotel. Some 1,500 supporters--the vast majority of them white women--filled an ornate banquet hall for an annual event dubbed the "Ultimate Women's Power Lunch." Even so, the whoops and cheers that accompanied Obama's introduction were an order of magnitude louder than polite applause for the most prominent woman in the room, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm. This moved Schakowsky to tell a story about a visit to the White House this winter to discuss the situation in Haiti. After the meeting ended and she had put on her jacket, the president noticed the pin on her lapel and took a dramatic step back. "He thinks I'm wearing an Osama button," Schakowsky recalls realizing. When she finally explained to the president that the button was for Barack Obama, a Senate candidate from Illinois, Bush was unmoved. "I don't know him," he grumbled. To which Schakowsky responded, "But you will, Mister President."

Schakowsky's prediction is probably a safe bet. The sad fact is that there is no single truly prominent black elected official in the country today, a situation that marginalizes African American voices on everything from education to foreign policy, and creates a vacuum that charlatans like Al Sharpton can exploit for their own gain. Were Obama to win in November, he would instantly become the de facto political leader of the country's African American community. Better still, his intelligence, savvy, and sheer force of personality would quickly make him an important player on Capitol Hill. From his perch in the Senate, he's likely to become a perennial possibility for a spot on a national Democratic ticket. Which is to say, while it's a shame there aren't more candidates like Barack Obama, for the moment, one may be enough.