Commentary: Race is everywhere and nowhere in presidential campaigns

MIAMI - I didn't give the incident much thought until a student brought it up in class. Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, interrupted a supporter who was denouncing Sen. Barack Obama: "I can't trust Obama," she said. "I have read about him and he's not, he's not uh - he's an Arab. He's not ... "

McCain took back the microphone. "No, ma'am. He's a decent family man and citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that's what this campaign's all about. He's not ... "

Not an Arab, presumably.

My student was outraged that McCain got away with suggesting that since Obama cares about his kids and country, he couldn't be an Arab. Commentators were so ga-ga over McCain's gentle reproach to a loopy fan that the fact that he back-pedaled into a stunningly racist assertion went unremarked.

Such are the bizarre ways that race surfaces in the 2008 campaign. What's odd is that while this election is historic precisely because of the major-party candidacy of a man who, under U.S. standards of race, is black, race goes unaddressed. Instead, race is both everywhere and nowhere, overriding and unacknowledged, a presence rather than a set of concrete issues. It stalks the conference room, uninvited, and never gets to sit at the table with the subjects that matter.

It's as if Obama's candidacy has both made race a signature fact of the campaign, and removed it - and the policy concerns to which it's normally linked - as an issue.

To read the entire commentary, visit The Miami Herald.