barack obama, the presidential race and race in america

the southbank centre, london, 23 september 2008

Back in February, as Barack Obama came from nowhere to take pole position in the race to be the Democratic Presidential candidate, there was much chatter about a new 'post-racial' America. 'It's a different country' ran the headline to an essay in the New York Times by the influential commentator Paul Krugman. Obama's success, Krugman pointed out, 'wouldn't have been possible 20 years ago'. It was possible today because America's racial divide had 'lost much of its sting'.

Today, as Obama struggles to establish a lead against John McCain, there is much talk about Obama's candidacy demonstrating, not an America that has jettisoned its racial past, but one still deeply in thrall to its prejudices, a view strengthened by McCain's greater popularity among white voters, especially working class white voters. 'If Obama loses' the race for the White House, Jacob Weisberg, of Slate magazine has suggested in a much-quoted essay, it would only have been because of 'the color of his skin'.

Neither response has much merit and the flip-flop in perceptions itself indicates the problem we have in thinking about race in the contemporary world. Racism clearly remains a force in America, as everything from housing to employment to imprisonment indicates. But race means something very different now than it did in the days of segregation and Jim Crow laws. Not because America is post-racial but because it is, in an important sense, post-political.

Over the past 20 years, since the end of the Cold War, the broad ideological divides that used to characterise politics have been all but erased. Politics has became less about competing visions of the kinds of society people want than a debate about how best to manage the existing political system. As the meaning of politics has narrowed, so people have begun to view themselves and their social affiliations in a different way. Social solidarity has become increasingly defined not in political terms - as collective action in pursuit of certain political ideals - but in terms of ethnicity, culture and lifestyle. The question people ask themselves is not so much 'What kind of society do I want to live in?' as 'Who am I?'.

As the politics of ideology has given way to the politics of identity, so it has transformed not racial inequality, but perceptions of identity and difference. On the one hand, racists now talk the language of diversity. Racism has almost become another cultural identity, 'conservative multiculturalism' as Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein put it in The Bell Curve.

On the other hand antiracists increasingly view diversity as a natural phenomenon. Identity is now often seen as something fixed and inviolable, 'a matter of fate, not choice' in philosopher John Gray's words. The most remarkable expression of this is the growing search for belongingness in our biology. Rick Kittles is co-director of National Human Genome Centre at Howard University. He is also the founder of African Ancestry Inc. which, for $349 will test the ancestry of African Americans. Kittles traced his maternal ancestry to the Hausa tribe in Nigeria. 'I then went to Nigeria and talked to people and learned a lot about the Hausa's culture and tradition', said Kittles. 'That gave me sense about who I am.'

Twenty years ago, black identity might have been seen as a political expression. Now it is increasingly seen as genetic heritage, inextricably linking race, culture and identity. According to Joseph Harker, former editor of the Voice, Britain's leading black newspaper, genetics provides black people with 'a route to a new identity', a reconnection with 'their own brothers sisters and cousins' and the possibility of 'a whole new history and culture'. Not just African-Americas or African-Caribbeans but Jews, Macedonians, Welshmen - everyone, it seems, wants to know who they are and where they come from genetically. They want to find their family, discover their tribe, unravel their race, uncover their heritage. The result is that we have developed a more tribal notion of identity and a more fragmented sense of society. Or to put it another way, a more fragmented society has given rise to a more tribal set of identities.

What has gone missing in all this is a sense of social transformation, a belief that inequalities can be overcome through collective social action. Of course one can argue that such belief was always weak in American politics, but it has all but disappeared now. And in its stead has come the celebration of diversity. 'Stripped of a radical idiom', as Russell Jacoby has put it in his book The End of Utopia, 'robbed of Utopian hope, liberals and leftists retreat in the name of progress to celebrate diversity'. In reality the celebration of diversity hides the acceptance of social inequality.

Political affiliation itself has become cultural and tribal. American journalist Bill Bishop's new book, The Big Sort, has become something of a Bible for strategists on both sides of the political divide. Bishop shows how Americans are clustering into enclaves of like-minded tribes defined by lifestyle: people want to live in the neighbourhood of others who eat the same kind of food, read the same books, watch the same shows, have the same hobbies, and vote the same way. In this culturally Balkanised America, Democrats and Republicans define themselves these days as much by culture and lifestyles as by politics and policies - which is why strategists in both parties are grabbed by the microtrends revealed in Bishop's research.

Barack Obama is, in many ways, the consummate politician for such a post-political age. He eschews anything so old-fashioned as a political programme. What he sells are not his ideas but himself. He works the crowds with 'stories' about his life, his background, his family, his upbringing. His supporters respond to him because he seems young, hip, and cool, a man who can bring hope and change and a new America - without ever having to define what hope, change and newness means. What seems to matter is not where his policies might take America but what he himself, as an individual, represents about the state of American society.

But Obama's strength is also his weakness, in terms both of policy and electability. He sells his personality not just because, unlike McCain, he has a personality to sell but also because it fills the gap where policy should be. And where he does set out policies they are, from Iraq to immigration, pretty traditional and pretty dubious.

His detractors reject him for exactly the same reason that his supporters are drawn to him - less for what he believes than for what he represents. That is why embittered Hillary Clinton supporters have taken his nomination as a personal slight and threatened to vote for McCain. And that is why many white working class voters reject him - he is not 'one of us'. (Though we should not see such rejection as necessarily racial - they were equally reticent about John Kerry and Al Gore).

What the presidential race has revealed is neither a nation in thrall to old-fashioned racial divisions nor one that has become post-racial but a culture that has become post-political. And in post-political America, the inequalities and divisions remain - but the political resources to overcome them have ebbed away.