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When former Rep. Geraldine Ferraro (D-N.Y.) asserted that “if Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position,” she caused a mini media frenzy and was forced to step down from the Clinton campaign’s finance committee.
I found the comment slightly unsettling but not for the same reason that most did. Since Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is half white and half black, calling him black reminded me of those Nazi-era Nuremberg laws that classified Germans on the percentage of their Jewish blood, as well as of America’s Jim Crow laws, which distinguished between blacks, whites and often those of mixed ancestry.
Given his parentage, Obama is neither entirely black nor white. But since his skin color is closer to most African-Americans, it isn’t surprising that he’s generally classified as a black American. Indeed, that’s what he calls himself.
Actually, the question of whether Obama’s skin color has helped or hurt him during his presidential bid is an interesting one. (How his skin color affected his entire life is a very different question, and certainly one far beyond my own expertise.)
Assume, for argument’s sake, that the white Obama still graduated from Columbia and Harvard Law School, served six years in the Illinois state Senate, lost a Congressional bid but won a U.S. Senate seat. Also assume that he’s a terrific orator and has run the same high-quality campaign with the same consultants that he has.
Under that scenario, would he likely be even with or ahead of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.)? I’m inclined to believe not. That means Ferraro probably was correct that, all things being equal (though they rarely are), Obama would not now be leading the Democratic contest if he were white.
Part of the excitement about Obama flows from his story, and the candidacy of a white politician from Chicago isn’t nearly as interesting a story. What makes him unique are his mixed-race background and the uplifting narrative of black kid who succeeded and who promises to bring Americans together. In a time when voters want change, Obama doesn’t look like your average politician.
Any candidate can promise change and try to tap Americans’ desire for a better country, but Obama’s race is very much part of his appeal. That’s especially the case in the Democratic Party, which is filled with idealists looking for a new messenger of hope.
For Democrats, many of whom celebrate diversity and multiculturalism and would feel good about making a statement about their values and their wishes for America, Obama’s race and background are clear assets.
But if Obama’s race is an important part of who he is as a candidate, it has been an even bigger tactical advantage for him in his fight for the Democratic nomination.
As a white candidate, Obama would have had a difficult time, if not an impossible one, corralling the African-American vote, which has become such a crucial part of his coalition. Instead, Clinton would have been the overwhelming favorite of black voters (as indeed she was), and they almost certainly would have remained in her corner without an African-American candidate in the race.
While the African-American community would not have turned out as heavily for Clinton as they have for Obama, black voters, combined with the New York Senator’s appeal among women, Hispanics and older voters, might well have made her unbeatable.
But let’s assume that Clinton is so polarizing that she would have inevitably generated a serious threat for the Democratic nomination. In that case, it’s unclear whether Obama or former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (or even someone else) would have been that candidate.
Edwards, after all, also was a “change” candidate, and he started with the single strongest base of support in Iowa.
With his Southern roots and style, Edwards had appeal in the African-American community. He, not Obama, would have been Clinton’s main opponent in South Carolina on Jan. 26 and in Alabama and Georgia on Feb. 5, had the fight for the nomination lasted that long. And Edwards’ message might have been more upbeat and less demagogic had his campaign been able to position the former North Carolina Senator as the “change” alternative to Clinton.
But wouldn’t Obama’s oratorical skills have made him a serious contender for the nomination anyway? Maybe. But there is no guarantee that he would have caught fire. Again, what made him so noteworthy early in the campaign — and so difficult to attack throughout the Democratic contest — was that he stood out from other candidates, past and present.
Observing that Obama benefited during the contest from his skin color doesn’t mean it’s always a benefit to be black, that the Illinois Democrat’s race doesn’t have a downside politically, or that he doesn’t deserve to be where he is. And it certainly doesn’t mean he is defined solely by his skin color.
Clinton also has benefited from certain attributes, including her gender and her husband. And is anyone certain that she would be the United States Senator from New York, and a contender for the presidency, if she had not married Bill Clinton?
Stuart Rothenberg is editor of The Rothenberg Political Report.