One of the narratives that could have emerged from last night’s primary results in South Carolina would have been extremely destructive to Barack Obama’s future chances: that he was only a black candidate, just another Jesse Jackson. As we quickly found out, there was nothing to support this interpretation. Obama won a respectable 25 percent of the white vote, and tied Hillary Clinton among white men (not that this stopped Bill Clinton from making the comparison to Jackson). I’m sure the headlines this morning pleased Obama greatly, trumpeting, as The New York Times put it, “a coalition of white and black support.”
Still, last night at the Columbia Convention Center as the results were still trickling in, you could literally see the effort of Obama’s image-managers to kill this possible racial narrative before it could be born. By my eyeball estimate, about eighty-five percent of the hundreds of supporters who filled the large auditorium were African-American. But overwhelming black support was clearly not the message Obama wanted to send as he heads towards Super Tuesday, where the states voting have much smaller African-American populations than South Carolina. I saw volunteers carefully arrange the people who would appear in the background behind the senator as he gave his victory speech. They put middle-class-looking white families right in the middle of the bandstand, including one older man in a business suit and his blond wife together with their teenaged son, mop-topped and wearing a tie. The skin tone got darker on the edges of the stand and reflected more the make-up of the audience.
Look, there’s nothing wrong with this. Even though I stood by a group of reporters who commented about it and giggled as we saw it happening, nobody was going to write about it. Use of people as backdrops has become standard practice and if that’s what it took to subliminally send the message into millions of homes that Obama’s win was as inclusive as it really was, so be it.
What surprised me more was a moment (two, actually) in which the many enthused people who had come out to celebrate their candidate spontaneously made Obama’s appeal for him, demanding that race not be read into his win. And it happened in opposition to what appeared to be the media’s last gasp at interpreting the election this way.
By 8:15, the room was almost entirely full. An older African-American man who had brought along a montage he had made of pasted together magazine photos of Obama, Martin Luther King, and JFK had screamed himself hoarse calling out Obama’s signature, “Fired up!” chant. Beach balls bounced over the crowd. A local high school band was set up near the stage and playing “Louie, Louie.” Many families had come with small children they were holding in their arms. The whole time, on a large screen, the CNN broadcast was being projected and occasionally the music blaring out of large speakers - lots of Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and U2 - would shut off and Wolf Blitzer’s voice would fill the room.
At one point, as the size of Obama’s victory was already obvious, Blitzer walked over to John King who was standing next to the interactive map of South Carolina. King began explaining that the percentage of black voters in Super Tuesday states was very low, with the exception of Georgia. He brought up a map of the country that illustrated this and wondered aloud about how this would affect Obama’s chances. Just then, a chant started and then grew louder, directed at the giant screen: “Race doesn’t matter! Race doesn’t matter!”
It was shocking and I saw the other reporters sitting next to me smile. Not because people were enthusiastically chanting. Every few minutes a new one would start (“We want change!” was particularly popular). But this was a direct rebuke at the attempt to lean on race as an explanation of where this race would go. We all know that this is Obama’s message. He made this very clear in his speech last night, that he sees himself as a post-racial candidate. But it was another thing to see this taken up by ordinary people who seemed in that moment to be blaming the media for not listening to their desire to move beyond skin color.
A few minutes later the same chant was taken up again, this time in response to another conversation between Blitzer and King comparing Obama’s slice of the electorate to Jesse Jackson’s in 1984 and 1988. They pointed out that Obama had managed to grab a much higher percentage of the white vote. “Race doesn’t matter! Race doesn’t matter!” they yelled up at the two anchors.
It was a fascinating moment for me because it showed how aware people are of the media’s role in defining candidates and setting storylines. And here were a few hundred people making it clear they didn’t want CNN telling them what had happened in South Carolina. And, as it turns out, they were right. For the most part, at least when it came to Obama, race didn’t matter.
Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.