Does Race Still Matter in Politics?
Unfortunately, yes, but there are promising signs that the color of candidates could count for less in the future.
But the dramatic difference in Obama's approval ratings suggests that whites and blacks see his presidency in almost opposite ways; his approval rating is above 90 percent among blacks, showing almost no drop since Election Day, while it has fallen to 35 percentamong whites and 54 percent among Hispanics, according to a recent Gallup poll.
And that divide has created one of the more interesting dynamics in today's politics. If you're a reporter in Washington, it's easy to bump into African Americans who are critical of the president or his team's policies, political approach or even what some feel is a lack of diversity in his inner circle.
But almost all of these activists are reluctant to see their name attached to a story, worried about becoming the next Tavis Smiley, who repeatedly criticized Obama but instead found himself being sharply attacked by African Americans. It is perhaps the most obvious sign of a politics still trapped in race that black political activists don't have the confidence to criticize an African American in the Oval Office.
Cornell Belcher, an African-American pollster who was an adviser to Obama's campaign, said the "post-racial" notion after the election of 2008 simply overstated reality. "Blacks and whites still continue to vote differently in this country," Belcher says. "Obama won not because he strongly did better among white voters. He didn't. He won 2 more percent of white voters than Kerry. Race matters really do still matter. I think Fenty's overwhelming initial win in D.C. blurred the continued racial bifurcation in the city and fed into the post-racial narrative that many of us wanted to feed, even if we really didn't believe it deep down inside." (For more on the political and economic transformation of Washington D.C., see this Root story.)
After this fall's elections, even after Obama's election, the 100-member Senate will likely have zero black members (Sen. Roland Burris of Illinois is not seeking re-election) and two Latinos. An emboldened Tea Party will take on President Obama in greater force in 2012, illustrating a racial divide on the perceptions of his presidency. Many of the black members in the House will come from majority-black districts.
At the same time, candidates like Scott could win without race being an issue in their elections or, as Scott called it in a New York Times interview, "a distraction." And even as Fenty lost, other young political figures, such as Newark Mayor Cory Booker, remain on the rise and have cast themselves as moving beyond race.
Looking forward, when Obama runs for re-election in 2012, he will run in a country -- on racial issues, at least -- that has not been transformed by his presidency. Instead, his race will likely help him among black voters, perhaps hurt with some whites, but be irrelevant to many others, just as in 2008. If we live in Obama's America, it is not post-racial or racially polarized. And he'll have to navigate that more like Tim Scott than Artur Davis.
Perry Bacon Jr. writes about politics for The Washington Post.