If Obama Loses...

Could it be because of anything other than race?


Here is the nightmare scenario: Nov. 1, 2008, Barack Obama is leading in the national polls by a comfortable margin. Nov. 4, 2008, he loses the election, either by a whisker or by a margin large enough to suggest that it was never really close. All indications are that the loss will be blamed on "race" and "racism." People will say that cynicism and fear won out over hope and change, that a "black man" still can't get a fair shake in America. Dispirited supporters will argue that the great American scourge of race, "our great birth defect" as suggested by Secretary of State Condi Rice in an interview last March cannot be defeated.

Recent polls following the conclusion of the Republican Convention have made a possible Obama loss a hot and emotional topic. Even contemplating the scenario brings with it a host of additional worries. Could anger and disenchantment cause riots in the streets? Could an Obama loss actually set back people's aspirations, leaving them to feel that Dr. King's great dream is not only unfulfilled but trampled? Will blacks erupt in collective outrage, or shake their heads knowingly and whisper to each other (as many of us are doing now)—America is still not ready for a black president no matter how bright or qualified he/she may be.

Pollsters insist that while "race is a factor" in this campaign, they have not been able to accurately measure its impact. Many black Americans are holding their collective breath, hoping that the most stubborn of American issues will not be the thing that keeps Obama out of the White House. I suspect that many white Americans are, too.

On the one hand, it seems ridiculous to think that, after all the hurdles crossed during this campaign that race could be the single defeating force. But think of it this way. This election is about change, and in this case, change may be even bigger than race itself. No matter how much we claim to want it, change is always hard, always scary. Electing a black man and his black wife as president and first lady of the United States is not only radical political change; it is radical social and cultural change for America as well.

For Obama to win, the country needs to be mature enough to get past some age-old stereotypes and divisions. The recent McCain surge is a reminder of how difficult that may be. There is simply no denying that race is an issue. But if Obama is defeated in November, it may have less to do with overt racism than another obvious issue in this race: class, and a striking inability for a majority of white, working class Americans to connect with Obama and his vision for the country.

Obama's unique task is to introduce Americans to the concept of change—change that is about far more than policy issues. He has to convince Americans that, regardless of the color of his skin, his vision and his plans for the country are superior to those proposed by John McCain.

He also has to connect with working class and rural white Americans, many of whom, believe it or not, have not ever really had an intimate friendship or dialogue with a black person, especially one whose education, career and life prospects far outpace their own.

It may work. It may not. But black people, particularly those of us of Obama's generation and younger, who have been blessed with great educations, opportunities, jobs and incomes, need to come to grips with the fact that we cannot have it both ways. We cannot both see ourselves and our success reflected in Obama's rise, and at the same time blame racism as the only explanation if he loses. That rationale simply won't wash anymore.

Much can and will happen over the next eight weeks to challenge all of our perceptions about what is possible. But we have advanced the ball too far down the field to claim racism as our principal national weakness. Regardless of the outcome, we have drawn closer to fulfilling this nation's great promise and America's political landscape has changed forever, whether people actually vote for change or not.

Sophia A. Nelson is a media commentator and political analyst.