The tilt of Barack Obama at the position of Democrat Presidential candidate in next year’s elections has been intriguing me for some time. Hitherto black candidates have tended to be of the Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton type, so full of bile and hostility that they raise moderate hackles sufficiently to kill their candidacy stone dead.


I am therefore taken with this from The New York Times by Juan Williams, a political analyst for National Public Radio and Fox News Channel which seeks to explain why Obama’s colour has effectively been of no real importance at all, indeed has been a non-issue. I wonder if there is not a lesson for all our political parties in the manner in which Mr. Obama has conducted his campaign and how he approaches the issue of race which generally seems to be by not paying it no mind at all.


This contrasts starkly with the typical approach of politicians of the left who hail from one of our ethnic minorities which is to play the race card now, tomorrow and forever. Paul Boateng started it with his ludicrous slogan “Brent South today, Soweto tomorrow!” which is the sort of thing that gets up the noses of people of moderation in short order. For many that unfortunate utterance defined him forever and deflected any future interest there might have been in anything sensible he might have to say which, in the event, it has to be said, was remarkably little. Still, it provided him with a nice little pension plan as he is now, notwithstanding any diplomatic training or obvious diplomatic skills, High Commissioner to South Africa.


The late and most unlamented Bernie Grant was another demagogue who approached almost everything from a position of race and who so defined himself in people’s minds. He may have been popular in his constituency and won re-election but that probably tells you more about his constituents than anything he might have said that was commonsensical and of universal appeal.


There have been many others who have wielded their membership of an ethnic or religious minority as a shield with which to ward off genuine criticism of their standpoint. David Miliband did this recently when accused of being like Chamberlain by a fellow Labour MP when he gave evidence before the European Scrutiny Committee: after a moment’s stumble when he thought that his interlocutor was being helpful, he realized that in fact his position had just taken the full-on blow of a well-aimed lance. Miliband immediately reached for his Jewishness to fashion a (false, as it happens) shield for himself. It was an ignoble, grubby and unworthy moment.


It strikes me that it is almost always counterproductive to play the race card as a matter of course. Most find it engenders immediate disrespect when it is played, usually off the bottom of the deck, and thereafter one has little or no time for them and makes one discount their opinions as a matter of course, which is probably harsh but there we are. The odd politician from an ethnic minority who chooses not to play that card becomes instantly much more interesting and their opinions will immediately be afforded more attention.


What does the blunt use of the politics of race achieve? Not a lot at the end of the day. Once played, the card sets up instant division, a division which it emphasizes and encourages to the detriment of the body politic. It leads to special treatment of minorities which inevitably breeds resentment in those left outside the tent. Labour almost always falls into this trap for the usual base political motives and then ends up wondering why nasty folk like the BNP manage to get a toe hold in constituencies like Margaret Hodge’s Barking where they got 16.9% of the vote in 2005.


I was expecting Mr. Obama to provoke all sorts of ructions because of his colour. That probably proves that I am hopelessly stuck with a vision of the USA of Governor Wallace, Martin Luther King and the issue of segregation and civil rights that so dominated the 50s, 60s and 70s and that I have failed to notice that the USA has, indeed, changed. Nonetheless it is intriguing that Obama has not provoked any sort of redneck backlash which prompts the thought that he has struck gold by simply ignoring the fact of his colour.


But it also suggests strongly that his demagogue forebears such as Jackson and Sharpton were actually no more than a pointless and sterile dead-end. If so, then, whatever one thinks of his policies, he deserves credit for pointing out a different way forward that is, ultimately, far more productive and valuable. And this weekend there are some signs that he may even be moving into parity with or even a lead over that repellent and poisonous chameleon, Hillary Clinton.


On the face of it, therefore, whatever deficiencies there may be in his policy programme or character, he has achieved something remarkable which is to allow voters not to see his colour at all. For that he deserves recognition, even if he ultimately fails in his quest to be his party’s candidate.

And in any event he should garner the applause of all meritocrats.

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