Elmer Smith: Race alone won't derail Obama

Posted: September 23, 2008

"If I don't win this election, it won't be because of race."

- Barack Obama

WE'VE HEARD Barack Obama say this a number of times in the past two years. The producers of "60 Minutes" ran a similar quote in a segment on Obama in this week's profile of the two candidates.

I sat next to him 14 months ago when he made that point again in a briefing with a small but influential group of black columnists in Las Vegas.

I remember thinking that this guy has been running from race for so long, he's starting to believe this stuff.

But as race rises to the surface in the final weeks of the campaign and more and more white voters are willing to discuss it, I'm starting to believe he's right.

In fact, it's precisely because so many more white voters are willing to come out in the open on this issue that I am starting to feel that his race alone will not keep Obama out of the White House.

Racism is like a blood-borne virus that grows and spreads in the warm channels of our arteries. But it loses power in the open air.

There will be some who won't vote for Obama or any other black candidate. A lot of folks wanted to take Gov. Rendell to the woodshed for making that point during the Pennsylvania primary.

It may have been a convenient truth for Rendell and Hillary Clinton, his candidate in the primary. But it was true nonetheless.

It's still true. But how many people is it true of?

Not enough to derail Obama, I think.

You might think differently if you had read the Associated Press-Yahoo News poll conducted with Stanford University. It has been interpreted to show that Obama's race could cost him six points on Election Day. Three of the last presidential elections have been decided by fewer than six points.

"There's a penalty for prejudice and it's not trivial," Stanford political scientist Paul Sniderman said in interpreting the poll results.

Far from trivial, it is significant and substantial.

But it will not be decisive, because in times of crisis, enlightened self-interest is often enough to trump even our most deep-seated biases.

It's not the hard-core bigots that Obama has to worry about. Very few of them were ever going to vote for a Democratic presidential candidate anyway.

Republicans have been offering them a haven for 50 years. When Ronald Reagan opened his campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., site of one of the most racist chapters in American history, he used the coded issue of states' rights to beckon bigots to his camp.

In 1981, when Reagan attempted to try to restore Bob Jones University's tax-exempt status despite its bigoted stand against interracial dating, Reagan was just marking his territory.

What Democrats have to worry about is the blue-collar workers who did not bolt to the GOP at the height of the civil-rights movement. Unionists who believe that every economic advance they have achieved is threatened by minority workers are anxious.

But it's not a new anxiety. They chose to keep the faith with minorities and others in the Democratic coalition because they believed Democratic policies were in labor's best interest.

With pocketbook issues topping their agendas, they will have to decide if their best chance for affordable health care, middle-class tax breaks and shifting the balance of economic power from their bosses to them is more important than unease about Obama's race.

Union leaders in open discussions need to remind the rank- and-file that not every racial concern makes you a racist and that to abandon the coalition would be voting against their own interests.

They need to remind their members that black people have voted for every pro-labor Democrat since 1934.

"If we do a good job in letting people know who I am and what I stand for," Obama has said, "they'll make judgments not based on my race but based on how well they think I can lead this country."

Or how little they would gain from the alternative. *

Send e-mail to smithel@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2512. For recent columns: http://go.philly.com/smith

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