Many white voters are drawn to Obama in part because they think he can do something about healing the racial divide in this country. That, to me, is one of the best reasons to vote for him.
This has always struck me as one of the more curious pro-Obama arguments. I understand why people make the argument (because they think and hope that it is true), and I suppose I can even see how you might conclude that Obama is capable of doing something along these lines, but then again I’m never quite sure what people mean when they say this. If this “divide” were “healed,” what form would that take? Institutional discrimination, except for “positive” discrimination, is officially no more and has largely ceased to exist, and the social stigma against racism (which is defined more and more expansively) is as strong as it has ever been, so where does the divide become narrower in practice? Patterns of residence, however, still tend to break down along racial lines, and it is in those particularly diverse urban areas where the “tortoise effect” takes hold. There are presumably many reasons for this, but one of them may be simply that this pattern is normal and will tend to recur. If that’s right, there may be some degree of “division” that is unavoidable in an increasingly diverse country.
If the “healing” in question is more intangible and concerns a change in attitudes, I submit that Obama’s election could very easily have exactly the opposite effect. Race, like ethnicity, becomes especially divisive in a community when it is politicised (and it is as divisive as it is because it is frequently politicised), because the contestation for power takes on additional, charged connotations of the status of an entire group of people. The outcome of the election takes on added importance: one outcome represents a breakthrough and an elevation of status, and another represents repudiation. When that is combined with ideological baggage that draws in larger national debates on policy, either outcome can be even more explosive. To draw on a recent example, the charge of a stolen election in Kenya became an occasion for ethnic violence because the election was contested by members of the two major ethnic groups. To crudely oversimplify, the Luos perceived the (rigged) election loss as one more in a long line of injustices they had suffered, and the Kikuyus saw the possibility of a Luo coming to power as a threat to their status. Democracy is inherently identitarian, and elections are contestations over which groups will hold more power than others in practice, so particularly in countries with strong racial or ethnic group identities the notion that a country is going to promote reconciliation through the election of someone identified with a minority group is probably mistaken. So I think we underestimate the potential for this year’s election to be an unusually divisive contest, and its aftermath may be even more so regardless of the outcome.