For those who support Barack Obama, our cover this week may seem yet another examination of their candidate's problems with white voters. For those who support John McCain, raising the race factor can suggest that those who oppose Obama are implicitly or even explicitly racist.
The issue you are holding, however, is neither redundant punditry about what we recently referred to as "Obama's Bubba Gap," nor is it pre-emptive hand-wringing about how the race card might get played in the months to come. Our goal, rather, is to show how a seemingly straightforward question (are we really ready to elect a black man president?) has no simple answer.
Many readers will disagree with me on that, believing—drawing on hope, I think, more than empirical evidence—that America is not only ready but willing, able and about to do so. Most surveys back up the cheerier vision of a nation that has drawn closer to the Promised Land: the new NEWSWEEK Poll finds that the percentage of Americans saying the country is ready for a black president has nearly doubled in the last eight years, from 37 percent in 2000 to 71 percent today.
What is most interesting about the coming election is that there may well be a gap between our claims of openness to a black president and the reality of how many people will in fact vote for Obama. (An important nuance: for those who support either Hillary Clinton or John McCain, the more precise and more useful way to frame the question is not whether America is ready to elect a black man president but rather should the country elect this black man president. This is a significant point, and it is critical that we bear in mind that one can be for McCain [or for Clinton] without being racist.) Our pollsters at Princeton have created what they are calling the Racial Resentment Index. The index is made up of 10 questions testing voters' views on issues such as interracial marriage and racial preferences; the higher one's score, the higher one's racial resentments. (People lie to pollsters about race, but usually to appear more accepting, not more resentful.) Twenty-nine percent of all white Democrats scored "high." Of those, 44 percent say race will be a very important factor in an Obama-McCain contest. While Clinton leads McCain 78-18 percent among the high Racial Resentment scorers, Obama beats McCain much more narrowly, 51-33 percent. In sum, race matters—and it could make all the difference in a close general election.
We can either ignore that and hope we are inexorably moving toward a post-racial society, or we can acknowledge the role race still plays, for candor is ultimately more constructive, and more liberating, than polite indirection.
In our package, Evan Thomas uses the most basic of political tools—the memo format—to offer Obama unsolicited advice on what the campaign needs to do to win over a public that is not overtly racist but whose views are still, to some extent and to some degree, affected by race. In a series of essays, Harold Ford Jr., Ellis Cose, Richard Rodriguez and Marjorie Valbrun explore different aspects of the race factor.
It is a complex thing. As Ellis writes, "In the old days, when Southern governors were declaring allegiance to racial segregation, it was useful classifying Americans by whether they were racist. We are a different America today, one in which race interacts in a complicated way with other factors—age, gender, education, accent, religion, wealth—to determine how we feel about people and their place. It's harder than ever to tease out a purely racial effect." It is hard, but as Ellis also notes, it is not impossible. We cannot wish race away, but the more we know about people's resentments and fears, the better we may be able to put them to rest. That is a task for all of us—for Obama, for McCain, for the press and, in the end, for every voter who believes in what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature."