Published On: Sat, Oct 13th, 2018

How 3 black candidates are running post-Obama

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It took President Barack Obama, who was running for re-election at the time, about a month to finally weigh in.

And when he did, his comments reflected his reticence to weigh in on an active investigation, but also his caution on matters of race.

Obama’s approach to race, at least as he was campaigning for white support, was predictable for much of his two terms — tread lightly or, if possible, say nothing at all, to maintain the illusion of post-racial politics.

(The furor touched off by Obama’s comment that Cambridge police “acted stupidly” in arresting a black Harvard professor at his home was a defining and instructive moment. Polls suggest his white support took a dip and never fully recovered in the summer of 2009.)

Obama’s 2008 race speech was imbued with both-siderism. And his lectures to black audiences about their behavior assured whites that he wouldn’t be captive to African-Americans as the first black president but instead would take a “tough love” approach.

But in 2018, the three African-American Democrats running for governor represent something of an evolution from Obama on matters of race. The candidates — Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, Florida’s Andrew Gillum and Maryland’s Ben Jealous — speak to this post-Obama shift, which has been defined by the raw racial politics of Trumpism and the Black Lives Matter agenda.

Trump reportedly referred to African nations as “shithole countries.” He suggested a moral equivalence between white supremacists and people protesting against white supremacists. And he has called NFL players protesting against police brutality “sons of bitches.” In short, he has been a master of white identity politics, stoking white grievance by suggesting that his white base is under siege.

“You can’t talk about people getting shot by cops and not talk about race. You can’t talk about the President’s comments and be kumbaya and expect people to take you seriously,” said Andra Gillespie, an Emory University professor who has an upcoming book on Obama and what political scientists call “deracialization.”

“This moment calls for a different approach. They have the same challenge of Obama, though, to prove that they are running to govern everybody and not just the black community,” she said.

This new era hints at a post-post-racial era of American politics. Black politicians, courting white voters, are engaging in conversations about racism in a way that seemed politically perilous just a decade ago. Even as they take a somewhat bolder approach than Obama, all three black gubernatorial candidates are careful to say America’s first black president faced different challenges that made his approach to race more complicated.

How they run

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But in his telling, Gillum, who says he would repeal the “Stand Your Ground” law if he becomes governor, likes to make the listener do some work, reversing the racial roles in the McGlockton killing.

What if a black man were yelling at a white woman sitting in the car with her two kids as her white partner went into the store? What if the black man then shot the white man who confronted him over yelling at his wife and kids?

“Could you imagine, just for a moment, if the shoes had been reversed?” he asked his audience a few weeks ago, as part of a Congressional Black Caucus panel featuring black gubernatorial candidates. “I’m not trying to be sensational about this, I’m just trying to speak the truth. We all know that race still matters in this society.”

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