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How Race Has Benefited Barack Obama

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This column originally ran on Oct. 30, 2008. It’s appropriate today because the Latino electorate was key to Obama’s winning the 2008 election, yet he is now at odds with that demographic over immigration.

Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on DiversityInc.com. Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.

Ask the White Guy Luke ViscontiThe White Guy responds to a reader’s question of whether Sen. Barack Obama is facing opposition simply because he is a Black man.


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Question:
If Obama were a white man with the same ideas for economics, healthcare, the wars, energy AND the message of unity going against McCain, do you think this campaign would be such a big deal? I personally think that for those who so strongly oppose him, it merely comes down to the fact that he’s a Black man. They hide behind the “issues” but when it all comes down to it, I think that many who so strongly oppose him do so solely based on the color of his skin. What do you think? Keep up the good work.

Answer:
Thank you.
 
Every poll I’ve seen shows that there is a certain segment of the American population that will not vote for Senator Obama simply because he’s Black. What seems to have changed, however, is that those people don’t hide their feelings anymore.
 
According to the Pew Research Center, the so-called Wilder effect, where white people say one thing to pollsters and do another in the voting booth, seems to have gone away.

However, I think there’s another very important point: I’m not sure Senator Obama would have made it this far if he weren’t Black. It’s my observation that the everyday racism that hurts the majority of oppressed people by destroying ego, self-esteem and by putting one too many unfair race-based obstacles in a career path, galvanizes a small percentage of especially strong people.
 
To head off the usual “I had obstacles too” e-mails from white people, let me add that the injustice of racism (or sexism, or discrimination against people with visible disabilities, etc.) is in ADDITION to the regular obstacles that we all face. Not only is it additional, but it is focused on a facet of being that is out of our control–we are born the way we are (or may become that way in the case of a disability). That feeling of out-of-your-control, yet personally directed injustice cannot be fully understood by majority men who are heterosexual and have no ADA-defined disabilities.
 
Would Senator Obama have risen to go to Columbia and Harvard Law School–where he eventually became the president of the Harvard Law Review–if he were not strengthened by living every day in the crucible of being a Black man in America? Would he have had the empathy to work as a civil-rights lawyer and community organizer? Would he have had the gumption to successfully run for the state Senate twice and then the United States Senate? Could he have run a campaign that defied all media predictions, raised unprecedented money from an unprecedented number of people and derailed the anointed party candidate with the strongest brand name in politics?
 
I don’t think so.
 
If Barack Obama had been born a white man in a comfortable, middle-class household, I think he’d be successful, but I don’t think it’s likely we’d know who he is.
 
I will add that the same goes for Sen. McCain. Yes, he had the advantage of having a father and grandfather who were admirals who had influence in his acceptance into the Naval Academy. But plenty of people go to the Naval Academy–and there were over 1,000 POWs in Vietnam. Why did he resist his captor’s torture with such integrity? Why did he continue his career in the Navy after he was released? Why did he run for Senate? Why was his response to the debate question about torture so unequivocal and firm? Why do we know so much about this one senator out of 100? Sen. McCain has grit, character, intelligence and almost superhuman perseverance. There are no polls that indicate his support is in any significant way due to anti-Black sentiments–and I don’t think it would be fair to imply so.
 
There are significant differences in the philosophies of both candidates.

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2 Comments

  • Anne Rogers

    Obama did not grow up ‘a black man in America’. He grew up in Indonesia, then went to a prep school in Hawaii. He admits his upbringing is not what the majority of underprivileged African-Americans experience, just like Kennedy’s life was very different from the whites of lower social classes.

    • Luke Visconti

      He spent first grade through fourth grade in Indonesia. The rest of his childhood was spent in the United States. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

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