Obama and The Limits of Black Politics in America

The New Republic’s Noam Scheiber has an insightful article on Barack Obama, an Illinois state senator who has just won the Democratic senatorial primary. Leading in the polls, the election is now his to lose. Scheiber’s question is the one many have had about Obama’s victory: how did Obama avoid the pitfalls that have ensnared so many African-American politicians?

The challenge African-American politicians must overcome is this: if you appeal too much the African-American base, you’ll alienate moderate whites; if you appeal too much to moderate whites, your opponent will claim that you aren’t “black enough.” Witness Cory Booker’s difficult campaign for mayor of Newark, when the Yale educated councilman was tarred by the incumbent.

Scheiber appeals to research showing that white Americans routinely make distinctions between “good” and “bad” blacks. Once advertising showed to voters he was of Kenyan ancestry, as opposed to African-American, Schebier believes, the voters reframed Obama as different than traditional black politicians. Scheiber concludes that Obama’s act is tough to follow – how many self-deprecating half-Kenyan Harvard Law Review editors are there?

On the contrary, if successful, Obama could be in the position to establish a new brand name in national politics. It’s easy to imagine Obama establishing a sort of “DLC” for the African-American community, much in the same way Clinton tried pulling his party towards more moderate positions on trade and social programs. A congressional caucus under such a banner would powerfully reshape debates over race relations in this country.