Will Hairston, a white Virginian, admits it freely: When he goes into the voting booth Tuesday, he will take Barack Obama’s race into consideration.
It will be, he said, one more good reason to pull the lever for the Illinois senator.
“For me, the Obama thing is a giant step forward for America,” he said. The 47-year-old’s ancestors once lorded over black slaves as owners of one of the Old South’s largest plantation empires. Electing a black candidate, he said, would show that “we’re not just the slavery nation, the Jim Crow nation.”
This is the other racial dynamic that is shaping the opinion of some white voters, one that has taken a back seat to discussions of white bigotry: the reality that some whites regard a vote for Obama as a victory for diversity, an atonement for past sins and a catalyst for racial healing.
For many of these voters, the topic is difficult to discuss candidly: Nobody wants to be accused of shallow “Kumbaya” motives. “You wouldn’t want it to be misunderstood,” said Raymond Arsenault, a civil rights history professor at the University of South Florida who supports Obama. “It sounds like identity politics.”
But that is the charge being levied by some conservatives. In the final weeks of the election, they have been asking voters to consider whether a vote for Obama based on his race is a betrayal of the ideals of a colorblind society.
The rise of a major black candidate may be “positive and transformational,” said Colin Hanna, president of the conservative issues group Let Freedom Ring. But Hanna contends that it is also an insufficient basis for choosing a president. “Because what you are doing is electing a policymaker,” he said, “not a token.”
Hanna’s group has released a much-discussed Web ad that he said was targeted at voters of all races. In it, a black man evokes the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous dictum to judge people by the content of their character.
“My vote will not be based on race,” the man says. “I will heed that wise man.”
In the majority-white suburb of Arlington, Va., last month, residents with Obama signs in their yards received an anonymous letter that also asked them to question the motives behind their support:
“Racism comes in many forms, and there is a significant possibility that your sponsorship of Sen. Obama is really an obsessive compulsion to prove to yourself, and to others, that you are not a racist,” the letter stated, according to the Washington Independent news website. “Have you looked within yourself and examined your motives?”
In recent interviews, some white Obama supporters said they had examined their motives and were comfortable with the fact that they were supporting the Democrat at least in part because he is black. All of them were careful to say that it was not the only reason and mentioned a number of Obama policy positions with which they agreed -- his tax plan and his emphasis on a phased withdrawal from Iraq, for example. The candidate’s race, Arsenault said, is “an added bonus for a lot of people.”
Susan M. Glisson, a Georgia native, is director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi. The group helps small communities across the state deal with lingering racial tensions. She knows how symbolically important the election is for many black voters, and she wonders what kind of positive changes an Obama victory would bring to black politics and culture.
“What does it do to have your expectations raised?” she said.
Glisson has thought long and hard about her support of Obama and whether her decision is based on emotion rather than reason. She has decided there are many reasonable bases for her support, including economic and environmental proposals that she agrees with. She also thinks Obama’s race may help him arrive at pragmatic solutions to long-standing problems.
Among other things, she believes that a black president may take a more serious interest in racial disparities in income, healthcare and affordable housing.
In suburban Allison Park, Pa., David Wolff said he believed an Obama presidency would more directly combat the racist attitudes he was shocked to hear from so many voters in his state this year. Wolff, the vice president of a printing company, believes that exposure to a black president will serve as a needed counterpoint to negative images of African Americans on the radio and on TV.
“Picture a little kid at home, and here’s his mom or dad saying negative things about a black person,” said Wolff, 52. “At the same time, he’s looking on television and here’s Obama, this smart guy doing remarkable things. . . . That’s how I think he could have a transformational effect on people’s attitudes.”
Nicole LeFavour of Idaho sees Obama’s race through a different kind of prism. Serious racial tension is often an abstraction in her state -- it is about 97% white. But LeFavour, the first openly gay member of the Idaho Legislature, hopes that Obama will break the chain of 43 white men in the White House and govern with the interests of a more diverse population in mind.
“I think for a lot of people who have experienced discrimination -- be it over race, gender or sexual orientation -- they want a president who knows what it’s like to be different,” she said.
For others, Obama’s lure is not necessarily that he is black but that he “transcends” race with his biracial background and nuanced exploration of the American racial landscape. That is part of the appeal for Ralph Fertig, 78, a Freedom Rider during the civil rights movement who now teaches social work at USC.
“It’s not just that he’s black -- Jesse Jackson was black,” Fertig said. “It’s that he transcends it.”
Shelby Steele, a conservative black intellectual, has argued that such opinions point to a paradox inherent in the Obama phenomenon: Though the Illinois senator’s campaign suggests racial “transcendence,” Steele argues that race, nonetheless, is the only thing that separates Obama from hordes of party-line liberal Democrats. “If he were not black, I don’t know if we’d know his name,” Steele said at a lecture in January.
In an interview last week, Steele said that many white voters were choosing Obama as a way to “finally document for the world that they are not racist,” an impulse that blinds them to Obama’s weaknesses.
The argument didn’t hold water with Betty Pearson, 86. She said she was one of the very few white Democrats in rural Tallahatchie County, Miss.
Though “extremely pleased” about the prospect of a black president, Pearson added: “I don’t think that voting for a black guy absolves anybody of anything. There are still wrongs that need to be righted, and things that we need to do.”
Hairston of Virginia, the descendant of slave owners, thought Obama, if elected, would quell overseas critics who accuse the United States of racism. If critics like Steele called that “white guilt,” he said, then so be it.
Guilt, he said, “has a place and a role. Those who fail to feel guilt are sociopaths.”