With this election season (finally!) drawing to a close, people are starting to speculate that Obama will win. Every time I start getting hopeful, though, I remind myself not to get too comfortable. After all, this is still America, a country grounded in slavery, genocide, and freedom of opportunity, speech, and religion only for a few, not for the masses. Centuries after America’s beginning, we are still a nation profoundly shaped by racial inequality. To paraphrase comedian Chris Rock’s metaphor for this: “if you’re playing a game with a white guy, and you have six and the white guy has five, the white guy wins.” Right now, Obama has six. But the white guy with five could still win.
Despite Obama’s superior ground game, campaign management, advantage as the challenger after eight years of Republican rule, record levels of dissatisfaction with the current president and direction of the country, and even the dramatic financial collapse that precipitated his lead in the polls, white privilege continues to shape this campaign and could determine the final outcome of this election. The last examples I gave of this considered whether Malia Obama could be an unmarried, pregnant teen and get the same response that Bristol Palin has, or whether Barack Obama could have left his wife (after she was critically injured in a near-fatal car accident) for a younger, wealthy heiress without facing constant criticism of his morals and ethics.
Here are some other examples:
- Imagine that in the presidential debates, Obama initially refused to look at or even acknowledge John McCain’s presence. Imagine that Obama seemed almost visibly angry at even having to debate McCain. Would this election still be relatively close?
- Imagine that Obama had graduated fifth from the bottom of his class at a military academy. Better yet, imagine that he had attended five schools over the course of six years before graduating. Would anyone at all still consider these acceptable qualifications for seeking office?
- Imagine John McCain getting an endorsement from a major, credible Democratic figure who was well known for his expertise in economic policy (one of McCain’s weak spots). Would anyone have attributed this to race and argued that this figure only endorsed McCain because they were both white?
- Imagine that Obama, instead of Rep. John Murtha, argued that certain parts of Western Pennsylvania were racist. Would it be considered a simple admonition of truth, or would it be a blasphemy akin to Michelle Obama’s statement that “for the first time in my adult life, I am really, really proud of my country, because it feels like hope is making a comeback?” Or, as this statement was generally edited to read, “for the first time in my life I’m proud of my country.”
- Finally, imagine that Barack Obama was trailing in some polls by a 5-10 point lead (depending on which poll you look at), when a story surfaced in the New York Times that long ago, Michelle Obama had become so addicted to painkillers that she began stealing them from her charity foundation. Would Obama still be behind by only 5-10 points?
Race has shaped this campaign since its onset, and it seems clear that it will play a role in its outcome. I hope that on Nov. 4, white privilege doesn’t determine the outcome of this election. I will be discussing this issue and more on the show Meet the Bloggers, which airs Friday, Oct. 24 at 1pm.