Barack Obama has a problem. He really, really doesn't want this campaign to be about race. He wants it to be about change, President Bush, the economy, gas prices, Iraq, Afghanistan – almost anything else. But it is going to be about race, at least in part.
That's the lesson of recent weeks, when the McCain campaign brought up race (on the pretext that Obama had brought it up first). The Obama campaign tried desperately to change the subject but couldn't. Once the chum was in the water, the media sharks went wild.
Obama should take that as a warning. Race will be central to this campaign because McCain needs it to be. He simply doesn't have many other cards to play. And it will be central because every time Republicans light the match, the press will create a forest fire. Race is just too titillating to ignore.
Obama needs to control debate
The history of post-Vietnam presidential elections is littered with Democratic nominees who thought they could run on policy and ignore symbolism. This year, the symbolism will be largely racial. Obama can't avoid that. He needs to control the race debate instead.
Already, there is reason to believe that race is weighing Obama down. A survey this year by CBS and the New York Times found that 94 percent of respondents would vote for a black presidential candidate. But when asked if “most people” would, the number dropped to 71 percent.
Notre Dame political scientist David Leege estimates that 17 to 19 percent of white Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents will resist voting for Obama because he is black. That's far more than the percentage of Republicans who may vote for Obama because he is black. And it's a major reason that this election – despite Obama's myriad advantages – remains close.
To blow it open, Obama needs to bring Leege's number down. That may be possible, because even racists can be wooed. Think about it this way: Many of the voters who right now won't vote for Obama because he's black would probably vote for Colin Powell even though he's black. That's because they don't see Powell as a racial redistributionist, a guy who would favor his community at their expense.
There's no rational reason to believe Obama would, either. But because, unlike Powell, Obama is a liberal Democrat who enjoys overwhelming black support, that's what many racially hostile white voters assume.
For these voters, Obama can't make race go away by ignoring it, especially because the GOP and the media won't. He needs to acknowledge the fears and do something dramatic to assuage them.
Paradoxically, his best shot at deracializing the campaign is to explicitly make race an issue.
Obama should say what he believes
He can do that with a high-profile speech – and maybe a TV ad – calling for the replacement of race-based preferences with class-based ones. That would confront head-on white fears that an Obama administration would favor minorities at whites' expense.
It would be a sharper, more dramatic, way of making the point that Obama has made ever since he took the national stage (but which some whites still refuse to believe): that he represents not racial division but national unity.
On the merits, there's a lot to say for class-based affirmative action. Over the decades, racial preferences have played a vital role in creating a black middle class, but that middle class is now large and self-perpetuating. It is the multi-generational poor – whether urban and black or Appalachian and white – who truly need a boost today. And that's what Obama himself seems to believe.
Arguing that his own daughters shouldn't benefit from affirmative action, he told the Chronicle of Higher Education last year that “we should take into account white kids who have been disadvantaged and have grown up in poverty and shown themselves to have what it takes to succeed.” Some of the parents of those white kids fear voting for Obama because they think they'll lose out. If they knew Obama's views, they might change their mind.
Focus on need, not race
Race isn't going away as a factor in American life, of course. But the defining American problem of the 21st century may not be the “color line,” as W.E.B. Du Bois suggested about the 20th. In an age of growing multiculturalism and growing economic inequality, it may be the class line instead.
By calling for a different kind of affirmative action, Obama could acknowledge that profound change – and help propel himself to the White House at the same time.