How President Obama Took Race off the Table—Again

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Much has been made that defeated GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney got more white votes than any other presidential candidate since George H.W. Bush’s presidential win in 1988. But the reason he did can’t be chalked up simplistically to racial fear, dislike and disgust with President Obama. An untold number of white Romney voters chose him based on party loyalty, political alliance, voting tradition, and a sincere belief that government is too big, intrusive, and costly.

There is more. An estimated 8 to 10 million registered white voters did not vote. The reasons they stayed at home are as varied as the voters themselves. The one probable thread that runs through their non-voting is that Romney simply was not appealing enough to them to bother to go to the polls.  This further under scored a point reiterated countless times in the aftermath of the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections and that’s that a white presidential candidate can’t win the White House based on race alone. 

Obama insured that. In his victory acknowledgement speech on Election Night at the McCormick Center in Chicago he made a perfunctory reference to ethnicity when he ticked off the groups that were instrumental in his victory as well as the fast changing voter demographics of the country. His paint of the country in the broadest tapestry has been signature and carefully calibrated from the moment that as a first term U.S. Senator he announced was a presidential candidate in 2007.

In his 20 plus minute speech he used the word "race" exactly one time.  He did not use it as a direct racial reference. He used it to make the point that people could come together across all lines for change. In nearly every speech between his candidacy announcement that year and his reelection victory speech, racial references have been virtually non-existent. Obama did his political homework well on this. When he announced he was a candidate in 2007, the air was filled with endless speculation that race either covert or blatant would be a potential stumbling block to his candidacy. Countless surveys and polls consistently showed that many whites harbored negative racial biases and views about African-Americans. On Election Day in 2008 there was the concern that many whites who told pollsters that they would vote for Obama were hedging or flat out lying out of fear of being branded a racist.  Another worry was that the GOP with its long history of skilled use of sneaky code words, terms, and language to inflame many whites against blacks and minorities would do the same again. This would sow suspicion, mistrust, and antipathy against a black candidate and translate into a racial backlash on Election Day.

GOP presidential rival John McCain took the high ground. He publicly declared that race would not be a factor in his hits on Obama and he meant it. This didn’t stop the legion of rightwing bloggers, websites, and talk show hosts from lambasting Obama as a closet Muslim extremist, anti-American, and socialist. It didn’t stick. When Obama faced a real crisis with his former pastor Jeremiah Wright where race might have caused some doubts and second thoughts about him, it quickly fizzled. This was in part because Obama had adroitly run an absolute race neutral campaign, in part because it was the height of idiocy to think that a credible Democratic presidential candidate could be any of those silly and blatantly baiting slurs, and in greater part because the days were over when race was the driving force in defining a presidential campaign and election.

National elections hinged on voter’s political loyalties, education, income, gender, sense of economic well-being or hardship, and good feeling or foreboding about the future and the direction of the country, not race. The changing age, ethnic, and gender and sexual preferences of millions of voters nationally insured that no candidate could bait their way through the use of racial code words to the White House again. This was plainly evident in elections in the last two decades. A substantial number of whites have voted for black candidates in senate, congressional, state legislative, gubernatorial, mayor, and city council races, even voting for them when their opponents were white. Obama was a good example of that. He was elected to the Illinois house, senate, and the U.S. Senate with top heavy white support.

In 2012, Obama built up an impregnable firewall of trust and loyalty and admiration across all ethnic lines. The slightest racial dig, inference, let alone the crude race baiting against him from some circles was met with instant and fierce public outrage. Romney, followed McCain’ tact, and made not the slightest reference to race during the campaign. It would have been a campaign killer. This was the ultimate signal that Obama had taken race off the nation’s political table, maybe even permanently.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent political commentator on MSNBC and a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.

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  • Earl Ofari Hutchinson


    ve said that for ages

  • Mark S. Allen

    As one of those featured nationally challenging the lack of a Black agenda, I MUST admit when the Obama administration in fact DID respond to people like myself and others who participated in a number of National White House Black Issues conference calls that asked the administration to develop a dedicated website where Blacks like other constituent groups could find their specific agenda items being addressed and HE DID - AND that was followed with a detailed Black Jobs and Poor People's Agenda posted on that site that addresses many of the issues that I along with people like Tavis Smiley, Dr Cornell West and others have raised and we should acknowledge that. Its all there on the site an great foundation to start for those seeking The Black agenda for we should be ORGANIZING around whats there versus still saying one doesnt exist.
  • Roger Madison


    Thanks for sharing this informative website and its content with us.  I have read through several of the articles, and reviewed the fact sheets as well as "The President's Agenda and the African American Community."  What is interesting is that this approach is the full incarnation of "THE RISING TIDE LIFTS ALL BOATS."

    The problem with this approach is that it doesn't acknowledge the disproportionate impact of the downturn, and the need for more specific initiatives. Yes,all of the initiatives -- from the stimulus program to the Jobs Act, and the unemployment benefit extension -- all touch our community.  However, these initiatives don't address the reality that a major economic crisis widens the structural gaps that already existed.  And all people don't recover equally.  The well-to-do have benefited most from all of the recovery initiatives.

    Those of us who are advocates for stronger initiatives must work harder, and form effective coalitions with constituencies that we are a part of -- labor, women, and other poor people -- to gain increased focus on the fact that our needs are greater in order for our community to recover. We must take the initiative.  The "race neutral" policies at won't produce the outcomes we need.  We must demand more, and work harder to achieve more.

    We need the efforts of Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, but not at the expense of destroying the efforts of the Al Sharpton, Michael Eric Dyson, and Mellisa  Harris-Perry, among others.  We must achieve collaboration in our own ranks.  Just because the President has taken race off the table doesn't mean we have to.  We cannot pretend to be race neutral.  The pain we feel isn't.