Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Obama and the Specter of Race

It was the race of what could have been.

Pundits and pollsters alike are lamenting all morning on the 5 point margin separating Bill Thompson from Bloomberg's victory. They all wondered what could have happened if the Democrats had embraced him instead of abandoning him.

To this I say that the pernicious and rather ugly specter of racism is alive, well and thriving in politics. Thompson came close because he truly believed despite daunting odds he could have pulled off a Cinderella victory as the guy most New Yorkers would identify with. But he could not have done this without the validation of the most highly visible member of his own race.

When Obama threw his tepid, afterthought support for "that Democrat" running for Mayor in NYC he sealed Thompson's fate. This was after Obama's highly visible rebuke of Paterson. Contrast this with Obama's repeated, high powered support for Corzine. What did Corzine have that Thompson and Paterson did not? All three men were trailing in polls. All three are Democrats. What made Corzine distinct was the 25 million he poured into his own campaign. And the fact that he wasn't African American.

Similarly, look at the results of our local City Council race in the 20 CD. Democrat Yen Chou was running against Republican Peter Koo, a self-made businessman with deep pockets. She rattled off a list of endorsements from the Democrats except the one that could have made a difference in her district, the former Council member and city comptroller elect, John Liu. Like Obama, he had long abandoned his fellow Chinese political hopefuls. He endorsed his chief of staff in the 20 CD and incubent Alan Gerson in the Chinatown race against a very credible Chinese candidate, who ultimately won. In Liu's victory speech he spoke about the glorious colors of the rainbow that reflect the members of ethnicities who supported him. Yet he neglected to mention his own lack of support for those of the same ethnicity who wanted to follow in his footsteps. What made Liu's failure to endorse Yen is all the more telling, as both come out of the Queens Democratic organization.

Obama is the first African American president. Liu is the first Asian American city comptroller. Both have accomplished the incredible. But their lack of support to their brethren who aspire to public office like themselves speaks volumes about the persistence of racism in politics. Had the political establishment shunned both men for the color of their skin they would be where they are today. Both have preached inclusivity. Yet both have gone out of their way not to support credible candidates of the same race and ethnicity. Obama has gotten involved in gubenatorial races, Congressional races and local races. Liu has stumped for candidates as far reaching as those in other states. For either of them to have sat on their hands in races where they could have made a huge difference is regretable and somewhat repugnant. For this they both should be highly ashamed.

With mid term elections approaching it will be interesting to see whether it was wise for Obama and Liu to have assured Republican victories in the 20 CD and the mayoral. Race apparently doesn't matter to those who have already transcended it- as if we should deny that race matters. In a post racial world that is the most frightening acknowledgement of racism I can imagine.

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