We media monkeys will look very silly indeed if President Obama behaves in the manner predicted of him by one lady voter I saw interviewed on TV. She said that as soon as he got in the White House he would ‘put on a turban and start shooting the white folks’. She was a McCain supporter, I believe, from somewhere like Toilet Duck, Arkansas. You have to hope that she’s wrong. The TV news programmes came up with a dingbat like her pretty much every evening, a little spurt of racism from Hicksville which will have had the effect of flinging a few more white votes the way of Obama as people recoil instinctively from bigotry and crass stupidity.
Race has not been a single factor in this election, it has been many factors. To hear the British correspondents talk you might think the only thing that mattered was the so-called ‘Bradley effect’, when a black Democrat was expected to win in California but did not do so because white voters switched at the last moment for reasons which were perceived to be racist. There will have been some of that, I suppose, this time around (especially among Hispanics in the Rocky Mountain states, it would seem). Meanwhile, the Republicans employed, from time to time, a racism-by-stealth strategy, Sarah Palin contrasting Obama with something she called ‘Real America’. And then there’s the little-remarked-upon racism of African-American voters. The Bradley effect would not occur to such an extent this time around, we were told confidently, because America had grown up and would not vote on racial lines.
Well, quite a lot of it did. Some 97 per cent of African-Americans voted for the black candidate and I think it is fair to surmise that many of them did so largely because of the colour of his skin. This, however, is something we are expected to be thrilled about, for some strange reason. The BBC News was never happier than when showing black voters energised by the prospect of giving whitey a good whupping. When the issue of race rears its head, weird things start to happen to logic.
Then there’s Obama himself. Is he black? I’m not so sure. He has a white mother and a black father, so I suppose he is of mixed race, or what the South Africans used to call ‘coloured’. He was, before and during the campaign, many different colours. As a politician in Chicago, he was not regarded as black at all, partly because of his white mum and partly because he had no background in the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s; nor was he descended from slave stock. This regrettable lack of blackness seemed to count against him early on in the battle against Hillary Clinton, when many African-American voters, and particularly those in the Deep South states, were inclined to line up behind her. Obama became blacker as the battle against John McCain intensified; suddenly America was not simply voting in a presidential election, choosing between a liberal Democrat and a moderate Republican, but doing much much more than that: fulfilling Martin Luther King’s dream, showing itself to be a ‘mature’ democracy, lighting a beacon in a sea of eternal darkness, etc, etc. I ought to mention that this was not how Obama portrayed the contest himself — he was, to his credit, extraordinarily averse to be seen playing the race card. No; this was how it was presented by the media. But, one way or another, by the final stages of the campaign Obama had morphed into a fully fledged African-American, hallelujah.
I should declare an interest here: I like Barack Obama. I wanted, with great fervour, Obama to win this election. So far as I can tell, so did every other British journalist, with the exception of Melanie Phillips, who didn’t. I think Mel was rooting for Barry Goldwater. The entire Labour and Liberal Democratic parties, and most of the Conservative party also, seemed, latterly — somewhat unusually — to have distinctly partisan views and to be quite keen to publicise them.
So did the British public, and so one might excuse the BBC the charge of bias on this occasion. It was biased, but rather less so than most other conduits of information — and until its horribly shambolic election night programme, acquitted itself extremely well. It even managed to have a US election edition of Question Time which seemed to be weighted slightly in favour of the Republicans, in terms of audience members. And what a magnificently obnoxious bunch they were. But it seems to me incontestable that Obama was given a rather easier ride by the domestic media than his opponent. He wasn’t tested on his detailed plans for the gradual withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, which formed the basis of his candidature initially; nor was he tested in detail on his plans for the rescue of the American economy, which seems to have been the clinching issue for much of the electorate.
The American public, meanwhile, was offered the chance to show that the USA was ‘truly the land of opportunity’ by electing someone who had overcome the disabilities imposed upon him through his misfortune in having been born to an oppressed minority ethnic race. The notion persisted that despite spending ten times the amount of money on his campaign that John McCain spent, and having in some states 50 times the number of staff, more TV ads and the support of Hollywood and the liberal media elite, Barack Obama somehow won against the odds.
But in fact the issue of race favoured Obama much more than it favoured John McCain. I doubt very much that a novice senator who was perhaps the most liberal in the country would have won if he were entirely white, rather than of mixed race. Historic it may well be, but the odds were nonetheless heavily weighted in his favour — and it is a mild surprise, frankly, that his win was not even more emphatic. Still, none of this should reflect badly upon the President-elect himself, who appears erudite, self-deprecatory and likeable, which will make an extremely pleasant change. Until he puts that turban on, of course.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated November 8, 2008