The Post-Racial Election

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, November 2, 2008

No presidential election is about one thing only. It takes many strands fused together to account for victory or defeat. But when the last ballots are counted, that will not stop a judgmental world from using one criterion above all to analyze the outcome: Did the United States elect a black president or not?

This will be true although -- to an astonishing and admirable degree -- Americans have relegated the politics of race to the back burner in the long presidential campaign now in its final hours.

Barack Obama has succeeded brilliantly in casting his candidacy -- indeed, his whole life -- as post-racial. Even before the votes have been cast, he has written a glorious coda for the civil rights struggle that provided this nation with many of the finest, and also most horrible, moments of its past 150 years. If the results confirm that race was not a decisive factor in the balloting, generations of campaigners for racial justice and equality will have seen their work vindicated.

But on travels abroad this election year, I have found other nations reducing the complex arguments here about health care, national security and tax policy to a one-dimensional discussion of whether American race relations have really changed enough for Obama to win. I have seen this especially in countries that have their own concerns about race and politics and often project those concerns onto us.

This was underlined to me in France recently by this question from a fellow journalist: "Why do Americans insist on describing Barack Obama as 'black'?"

Wait a minute, I responded. The U.S. electorate and the media have, with some deplorable exceptions, worked hard not to treat Obama as a black candidate -- and to focus scorn on those who do.

But it slowly became apparent that my questioner was getting at a more precise sense of racial classification than Americans use today. In the French scheme of things, Obama is not black, and he is not white. He is both. And that is the true meaning of post-racial.

Ideally, this campaign has helped Americans become more comfortable with this reality. The nation is fashioning a functional equivalent of metis -- i.e., post-racial -- largely through a successful exercise in cognitive dissonance by the Obama campaign.

In his nationally televised half-hour campaign ad Wednesday night, viewers saw Obama extolling his white mother and grandparents for their "Midwestern values." They heard him reassuringly say that he had been shaped more by the absence than the presence of his African father -- a statement many of us can sympathize with from our own chaotic childhoods of absent parents and care-giving grandparents but one nonetheless with subliminal political undertones.

And viewers have repeatedly been reminded that it was Patton's army that Obama's grandfather marched in, not one of those shamefully segregated black units that still stir guilt among whites and a mix of pride and anger among blacks. Obama's values in some measure transcend the civil rights struggle. They were its beneficiary.

Overt race-baiting has actually declined as the campaign has progressed, especially since Obama's masterful March 18 speech in Philadelphia that defused the controversy surrounding his relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. When discussing race, the media have usually focused on technical and procedural issues such as whether white voters tell pollsters the truth about their intentions to vote for black candidates, rather than on moral and value questions.

An Associated Press-Yahoo News poll in September quantified the potential racist vote -- people who explicitly say they will not vote for Obama because he is "black" -- at about 6 percent of the electorate. (The pollsters helpfully determined that most Republicans would not vote for a Democrat of any color, proving that for some, red and blue are more important than black and white in this election.)

And a Big Ten Battleground Poll of the same vintage suggests that voters who rank race as an important factor will divide nationally between Obama and John McCain pretty much along the same lines as the non-racially-minded population. Go figure.

Those who fear that the pollsters are being deceived could turn out to be right Tuesday night. But grant me this: The campaign has dramatically narrowed the ground on which the politics of race can be practiced in the United States. That is a reality the rest of the world should absorb, acknowledge and get over, as Americans seem to be doing.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company