In “The Racism Excuse,” yesterday’s editorial rejecting the claim that racism explains Barack Obama’s flagging lead in the polls, the Wall Street Journal took obvious delight in repeating Democratic VP-pick Senator Joe Biden’s racially insensitive description of the Democratic nominee as an “articulate and bright and clean” African-American. For all its snarkiness, the WSJ has a point: the “racism explains it all” assertion is flawed.

The WSJ criticizes John Heilelmann of New York and Jacob Weisberg of Slate, who make parallel arguments: With all the structural advantages in his favor, the only reason Obama doesn’t have an overwhelming lead over McCain is that he is black. Or, more precisely, it’s because many voters—especially older, white voters—are racist.

There certainly are numbers to support this argument. Weisberg points out that 27 percent of whites think “too much has been made of the problems facing black people,” and 5 percent will cop to voting against a black candidate because of his race. One in six Pennsylvania primary voters say race played a role in their decision.
But Weisberg takes his argument a step too far when he writes, “Racism is the only reason McCain might win.” And when Heilemann writes that “Obama’s lead is being inhibited by the fact that he is, you know, black,” he treats the presidential candidate as if he were a brownie served to voters with a chocolate allergy: they’d be happy to eat it, but only if the baker made a new batch without the cocoa powder. Obama’s race is a more integral part of his candidacy—indeed, his life story—and not one that can be isolated from the other ingredients. But he gets to try to frame what his skin color means, just as his opponents are trying to do.

Obama’s promise of change is compelling, in part, because of his unusual biography. His 2004 convention speech introduced him as a man who embodies American ideals: the ability to transcend America’s divisions and overcome obstacles through talent and hard work. I use “embody” literally here—his skin color and his name are living testimony that he is the kind of change he says he will deliver. But his skin color also comes into play when his critics imply that he is too risky, too angry, or too “foreign” to lead the United States. Jacob Weisberg is right to argue that these attacks are often cynically coded racist attacks, or ones that uncomfortably flirt with prejudice:

To the willfully ignorant, he is a secret Muslim married to a black-power radical. Or—thank you, Geraldine Ferraro—he only got where he is because of the special treatment accorded those lucky enough to be born with African blood. Some Jews assume Obama is insufficiently supportive of Israel in the way they assume other black politicians to be. To some white voters (14 percent in the CBS/New York Times poll), Obama is someone who, as president, would favor blacks over whites. Or he is an “elitist” who cannot understand ordinary (read: white) people because he isn’t one of them. Or he is charged with playing the race card, or of accusing his opponents of racism, when he has strenuously avoided doing anything of the sort. We’re just not comfortable with, you know, a Hawaiian.

The WSJ is right to reject Weisberg and Heilemann’s fatalistic view of racism’s role in the election, even if it does so by sticking its head in the sand. (“[W]e reckon that a scant number of voters are motivated by racism, and that number’s growing smaller by the day,” it argues, a claim is hard to credit when America has elected only two black governors and three black senators since Reconstruction.) The truth is that race is an inevitable ingredient in Obama’s candidacy (as, it should be pointed out, it is in the candidacies of both Hillary Clinton and John McCain—their whiteness facilitates outreach to the very voters with whom Obama struggles). But it is just one ingredient, part of a much larger package that voters must choose or reject in its entirety.

Obama’s race undoubtedly accounts for some uncertainty among voters who would otherwise vote Democratic this year—but so does his youth, his lack of foreign policy experience, his manner, and all the other factors that he would be forced to manage if he were white. His race probably amplifies all the other doubts voters might have about him, but it does not work in isolation.

The challenge that faces Obama today is no different than the one he faced in the primary: find the right message and execute a winning strategy. And managing the race issue is a challenge today just as it was in January. Obama’s supporters are understandably worried about the tightening polls, but are wrong to soothe their anxiety with such simplistic explanations.

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Lester Feder is a freelance reporter based in Washington, D.C., and a research scientist at George Washington University School of Public Health.