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The Race Issue, Still

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, April 8, 2008

In 1988, I promulgated what I now call Cohen's Law of Racial Politics. It goes like this: In states where there are few African Americans, the liberal candidate can win the white vote. In states where there are many African Americans, the liberal candidate will lose the white vote. I forgot about my rule until Barack Obama came along. More and more, he seems haunted by the political ghost of Michael Dukakis.

I know, I know. Obama is an infinitely more talented politician than Dukakis -- more gifted, more exciting and, if you ask me, more needed. But just as Dukakis won the white vote only in states where there were significantly fewer blacks than the national average of 12.4 percent (New York was the lone exception), so has Obama usually taken the white vote in the same sort of states -- Wisconsin and Vermont, for example.

In states with substantial black populations -- Texas, Ohio, Tennessee, New Jersey -- the white vote went to Hillary Clinton. In Mississippi, she took 70 percent of the white vote while Obama got 92 percent of the black vote -- about as stark a racial split as you're likely to find.

Regardless of whether you favor Obama or Clinton (or John McCain), these are not happy numbers. Forty years to the month after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., they suggest the durability of prejudice and the enduring centrality of race in American life. Obama is a political wunderkind, but as the results suggest, one man can do only so much.

It's easy enough to dismiss the contest between George H.W. Bush and Dukakis 20 years ago as having no bearing on this year's race. Bush was the sitting vice president, and the election really amounted to a referendum on a third term for the popular Ronald Reagan. Then, too, Dukakis was an inept campaigner. If there is a single image from that campaign, it has to be the one of Dukakis, his head bobbing out of the turret of a battle tank, looking terminally silly.

But there is yet another image to recall: Willie Horton. He was a convicted murderer who was given a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison and went on to rape a woman in Maryland. Dukakis was governor of Massachusetts when Horton was furloughed. The Bush campaign seized on Horton and, in a powerful and repugnant commercial, ran his mug shot: an image of a bearded black man. There it was in one nifty package -- race, crime and liberalism. It's a wonder Dukakis didn't stay in that tank.

From time to time, Obama is likened to John F. Kennedy -- both charismatic and inexperienced politicians when they launched their presidential campaigns. But Obama could be like Kennedy in another way as well. Kennedy was a Roman Catholic, and no Roman Catholic had ever been elected president. In the 1960 Wisconsin primary, he ran into a version of Cohen's Law. He won the state but did poorly in Protestant areas. A month later, he won in overwhelmingly (95 percent) Protestant West Virginia and did so because he bought a half-hour of TV time and confronted the religion issue head on. It was a landslide.

Maybe Obama's Philadelphia speech on race served the same purpose. The results from the upcoming primaries, particularly Pennsylvania, will tell. My guess is that he still has not put the race issue to rest -- maybe because he failed to do what Kennedy did in West Virginia. In that speech, Kennedy told Protestant West Virginians that when presidents took the oath of office, they were swearing to the separation of church and state. A president who breaks that oath is not only committing an impeachable offense, he said, "but he is committing a sin against God." In other words, he told West Virginians that their major fear was baseless.

Obama in his Philadelphia speech said nothing as dramatic. On the contrary, when it came to the perceived threat posed by young black men (one out of every nine is in criminal custody), Obama built a fence around the issue by citing his grandmother's "fear of black men who passed her by on the street" -- suggesting it was comparable to what his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, had said. He did not confront white fears. Instead, he implied that they were illegitimate.

This is not 1988, and much has changed. For one thing, the GOP nominee is going to be an aging foreign policy hawk with no coattails to run on. But if the upcoming Pennsylvania primary simply echoes earlier racial divisions, Obama has to give yet another speech -- this one directed not at the pundits he so enthralls but at the very people who have so far rejected him on account of race. Will it matter? John Kennedy proved a long time ago that it might.

cohenr@washpost.com

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