There’s long been some sentiment that if Barack Obama wins the election it will not merely reflect improvements in the race/racism situation in the United States, but also possibly cause further improvements. I’ve always been a bit skeptical of that, but watching the recent controversy over Gwen Ifill’s book, the right-wing’s bizarre effort to blame the Community Reinvestment Act for the financial crisis, and the McCain campaign’s attacks on Obama’s non-existent ties to Frank Raines are making me realize that the reverse is likely to be the case.
For different reasons, both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush implemented political strategies that were designed to decrease the salience of racial issues in American politics. To Clinton, it was a way to render the Democratic Party safe for moderate white voters. For Bush, it was both a way of presenting himself as a “different kind” of Republicans and also an effort to broaden the GOP coalition to include more Hispanics. Those two strategies helped create the circumstances under which it’s possible for Obama to win. But an Obama victory would, on its own, transform the circumstances and elevate the salience of racial considerations. The McCain campaign has, thus far, hardly been playing by marquess of queensbury rules but (presumably fearing a media backlash) they’ve largely shied away from the explicitly racial stuff — didn’t have Sarah Palin wonder why Barack Obama thinks his kids deserve special treatment in college admissions that her kids don’t get — but it’s been bubbling up from the grassroots recently. On top of that, I think you’d have to assume that a McCain defeat would lead to the ascendancy of anti-immigrant forces within the GOP and the return of a political strategy that doesn’t really care about reaching out to non-whites which would, in turn, make post-2009 GOP candidates less wary of racialized attacks.