It is not a candidate's race that ultimately determines the outcome of an election in this country, but the power and appeal of his or her message—especially if that message addresses the needs and concerns of all ethnic groups, not just people of color or whites.
Since his early days as an Illinois state senator, Barack Obama's political messages have been broadly directed at all racial and ethnic groups. When Obama ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004, his message of racial harmony resonated across the state, even in the conservative, largely white areas of downstate Illinois. As Obama spoke, people listened not simply because of his eloquence or rhetorical skill, but in large part because of the refreshing appeal of what he was saying.
I think Obama is wise to reach out across the racial and political spectrum. He should continue despite pressure from some black leaders and intellectuals to tailor his messages to African-Americans.
This strategy has borne fruit before. Deval L. Patrick's impressive victory in the 2006 gubernatorial election in Massachusetts was a mirror image of Obama's campaign for the U.S. Senate in Illinois, as well as his current run for president. Like Obama, Patrick's win was cemented by his great appeal across economic, racial, ethnic, and ideological lines, dramatically demonstrating that a black politician can indeed generate widespread support. It proved that a politician's message, not his or her race, is of primary importance.
Even Jesse Jackson, who is often viewed as a polarizing figure, transcended the racial divide with his stunning upset of Michael Dukakis in the 1988 Michigan Democratic caucuses. Not only did Jackson win landslide victories in Detroit, but he also drew a surprising measure of white support in the Upper Peninsula, and in cities like Kalamazoo, Ann Arbor, and Saginaw. Jackson's political statements in his various campaigns for president have not always been consistent.
Unlike Obama and Patrick, he has toggled between race-specific and more inclusive themes. For example, Jackson relied on race-specific messages in his victory in the 1988 South Carolina caucuses, which has since shifted to an open primary, and only received 7 percent of the white vote. However, Jackson's popularity in the 1988 Michigan Democratic caucuses was based on the broad appeal of his unifying message, which focused on jobs, a higher minimum wage, education, housing, and day care for children of working women. Black candidates can indeed draw political support from voters of all races if their political messages address their basic concerns.
It would be a serious mistake to assume, as some have argued, that Obama, with his broad and unifying message, is not addressing issues of major concern to African-Americans. On the contrary, he has advanced realistic programs to combat concentrated urban poverty that focus on education, health care, family counseling, crime prevention, employment retention, and transitional jobs to get people in the labor market, combined with training for permanent jobs. He also supports increasing loans to small businesses and establishing financial institutions to help them get started. If elected president, he pledged to appoint a new director of urban policy to stay on top of these programs and report to him on what is working and what is not.
Although these programs would be very beneficial to many African-Americans, they would also help people of all races suffering from economic and social woes. Those kinds of programs tend to draw support from all ethnic groups because they are designed to help individuals help themselves—a basic American value.
Contrary to popular opinion, the strength of unifying political messages will more often trump the importance of race as a defining factor in the success or failure of a presidential campaign.
William Julius Wilson is a University Professor at Harvard.