A bad economy can sow racial division, as people in dire straits cast about for scapegoats.
This year may be different.
The events of the past two weeks have exposed Sen. John McCain's self-proclaimed lack of understanding about economics, as he had no consistent position or message throughout the financial crisis.
Further, he undermined his own experience argument as Sen. Barack Obama offered a far more steady and reassuring presence in the midst of crisis, while McCain's flashy gambits fell flat. (It's rare for the "outsider" candidate to even have an opportunity to display his or her abilities in a crisis.)
At this point, it's practically become a given that Obama is the superior candidate on economic matters.
And for those voters uncomfortable with the notion of a president who isn't white, but unable to tolerate four more years of this economy, it's a real gut check moment:
What, in the end, is really the most important thing to better the lives of you, your family and your fellow Americans?
Obama has long understood that the path to racial common ground is not through blunt force, through constant racial confrontation. Back during the New Hampshire primary, when Obama was asked if he would lead another "national conversation on race, he replied: "I'm less interested in a conversation about race in the abstract. All the self-flagellation, it's not useful. African-Americans get all riled up, and whites get defensive."
But he also recognized it can't be completely ignored either. When his views on race were being distorted by the guilt-by-association attacks regarding his former pastor, Obama stepped up and laid out the path to common ground as he saw it:
For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances - for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs - to the larger aspirations of all Americans -- the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for own lives - by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.
In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination - and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past - are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds - by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.
In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world's great religions demand - that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother's keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister's keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.
So Obama spends his time talking about that economic common ground, and not demanding constant self-flagellation.
Meanwhile, as the New York Times reported this week, union organizers are making peer-to-peer confrontation with their memberships, to bring racial issue out in the open and make the case that our economic problems are too dire to let skin color and false smears get in the way of change.
Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO explained the importance of this effort in Denver during the DNC last month:
Recent polls showing Obama hitting 50% in industrial states with older, union voters such as Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania indicate that the combination of the worsening economy, Obama's performance in crisis and a huge on-the-ground effort to emphasize common ground is making headway. Though another AFL-CIO official cautioned Talking Points Memo that things remain very fluid as many voters remain "persuadable" either way.
Will this combination of factors be enough to overcome the plague of racism? We won't know for sure until Election Day.
Honestly, I don't believe additional racial progress needs to be made for Obama to reach 270 electoral votes. The strides we have already made appear to be enough.
But if it does, we're talking landslide. And a far far stronger and unified America.