Obama’s Ellisonian candidacy

The prospect of the first African-American president persists, and has anyone stopped to ask what Ralph Ellison would think?

While the author of the most transcendent novel on America’s racial saga, Invisible Man, has gone unreferenced, Democratic voters have been presented with the oscillating depiction of Barack Obama’s blackness. The rhetoric of this sliding scale has been advanced by some who have obliquely magnified his race and others who have plainly dismissed it.

What the discussion has ignored, however, is a key civil rights issue that Obama has consistently involved himself with since his mythical arrival into the District: securing voting rights.

This effort begins with his authoring comprehensive legislation to combat deceptive voting practices — not only to protect voters from being deceived on polling locations and voting requirements, but also allowing them to go to federal court to request the involvement of the U.S. attorney general — in each of the three years that he has been in the Senate.

Yet Obama has truly invested himself in the controversial matter of voter ID, with much of his work exceeding traditional lawmaking: He co-signed a letter to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) threatening a sharp Democratic response if Frist introduced House-passed voter-ID legislation in the last days of the Republican majority; he demanded that the chief of the voting-rights section of the Justice Department, John Tanner, be fired after Tanner stated that voter ID did not disenfranchise minorities; he vehemently opposed the nomination of Hans von Spakovsky to head the Federal Election Commission because of the nominee’s support for a Georgia voter-ID program that was later struck down in federal court; and he served as Rep. John Lewis’s (D-Ga.) Senate partner in introducing a resolution denouncing voter ID.

With a landscape that has been nothing short of hostile toward voting rights, Obama has not only emerged as a charismatic advocate, but as an integral leader. That his efforts have not led to more concrete gains is much more attributable to two of his first three years in the Senate coinciding with a Republican majority and Congress’s deliberate pace rather than his being more show horse than workhorse.

So the seeming irrelevance of this policy record in the discussion of Obama’s civil rights bona fides is both distorting and disturbing.

Sure, you can attribute this absence to Obama himself — he has chosen to campaign less on policy and potentially divisive race issues and more on persona and the politics of unity; and to his followers who, as with voters generally, don’t have the time or expertise to understand the niceties of electoral policy or legislative maneuvering.

The significant answer, nevertheless, lies in two blind spots that have submerged Obama’s policy record from needed sunlight.

On the one hand, political television has traditionally focused its presidential campaign coverage on either insider politics or a small collective of issues. Civil rights, not to mention the broad swath of policies that would underlie the next presidency, gets pushed below the surface and far from the cognizance of voters.

On the other side, the criticism from prominent leaders in the civil rights community like Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Andrew Young (the latter two explicitly denigrated Obama’s racial credentials) displays an oversight, if not a disregard, for his legislative activities.

Because these oversights have largely dictated the perception of Obama’s appeal with black America, this spells a perverse, Ellisonian paradox. Obama, by virtue of his Senate seat and uber-superstar gravitas, has achieved a level of institutional standing that is manifestly visible, yet this pedestal has offered an invisible quality with respect to his legislative efforts.

Without Obama’s record speaking on its own to preemptively mute or debunk the criticism, and with a voting environment that constantly demands that he maintain his unifying profile in order to maintain his broad voting base, Obama remains and will continue to remain vulnerable to those who look to heighten or lessen the depth and authenticity of his race.

But the fact that he has been able to maneuver from within this box, and in many ways break free from it, is more than anything else his greatest achievement as a presidential candidate.

The hope that is the crux of the Obama narrative has been a national one, but we can’t lose sight of where this sweep of change most firmly resides. Regardless of who emerges as the party’s standard-bearer after Super Tuesday, or the president after Election Day, Obama does represent that fundamental Ellisonian hope: that his candidacy is the culturally transformative step that will help ascend black America from the societal exile of the lower frequencies.

Could this be a greater prize than the White House?

Mikhail is a former staff writer for The Hill.