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For Non-White Candidates, Politics Is Far From ‘Post-Racial’

Matt Bai has an interesting piece on “post-racial” candidates in today’s New York Times:

What’s notable about Ms. Haley’s campaign, like that of Mr. Obama and other candidates, is not just that she has breached a racial and cultural barrier, but that she doesn’t feel the need — or the desire — to talk much about it. “I love that people think it’s a good story, but I don’t understand how it’s different,”she recently told The New York Times. “I feel like I’m just an accountant and businessperson who wants to be a part of state government.” [...]

The peril for candidates aspiring to a kind of post-racial identity, however, is that they defy our inclination to cast politicians as protagonists. “If you’re going to tell people who you are, then you’ve got to tell them your story,” Mr. Dukakis says now. Minus the continual telling and retelling of the story, voters may like what you signify as a politician, but they may find it harder, when times get rough, to assume your authenticity.

Bai uses the “post-racial” language in his telling of this story, but I’m not sure if it is appropriate. To my mind, “post-racial” signals a political environment where candidates’ skin color and ethnicity are irrelevant to their evaluation as candidates. What Bai describes isn’t “post-racial” politics as much as it is the typical politics, where non-white candidates have to meet certain standards of conduct and appearance in order to be acceptable to a mostly white electorate.

For non-white conservative politicians especially, it’s often necessary to assuage the racial anxieties of their constituents. To use two prominent examples, for all of Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal’s post-racial bona fides — their ethnicity is almost entirely subliminal to their fiercely conservative beliefs — they owe some portion of their success to their ability to assuage the racial anxieties of white Southerners, and assure them that their backgrounds notwithstanding, they aren’t too ethnic. To be fair, a similar dynamic plays out in liberal circles; as many have noted, that Barack Obama didn’t sound like Jesse Jackson was extremely beneficial to him as he has climbed the political ladder.

To his credit, Bai comes close to acknowledging the catch-22 of being a minority politician: “If you spend too much time detailing your differences, you risk alienation. And yet, if you don’t remind voters of where you came from and what it means, then your adversaries almost certainly will.” That sounds about right. I doubt that there’ll ever be a genuinely “post-racial” political environment, but I hope for one where non-white candidates can go into elections without having to subjugate their heritage to the demands of a certain kind of identity politics.

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