Wednesday, January 17, 2007
From The Chicago Tribune…
Ready for Obama’s big test--and ours
By Clarence Page
WASHINGTON -- This time he’s not kidding.
“As many of you know, over the last few months I have been thinking hard about my plans for 2008,” Sen. Barack Obama said Tuesday in his groundbreaking announcement of his presidential intentions on his Web site.
In those initial moments, the Illinois Democrat reminded me of the gag video he recorded with a very similar beginning for ABC's “Monday Night Football.”
But this time Obama was not pulling our collective leg. He’s beginning the process of a presidential run.
And unlike every other candidate of known African descent who has come before him, Obama actually has a chance to be nominated and, perhaps, even win the grand prize.
Win or lose, he now faces the big questions, like what does he stand for? Can he take the heat and go the distance of a rigorous national campaign? Does he have enough experience? Will he be hurt by his middle name, Hussein? Will he quit smoking?
That last one, interestingly enough, causes the most concern among Democrats with whom I have spoken. The party that reveres the memory of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who jauntily flaunted his smokes in a fancy cigarette holder, now is the first to exile those who pollute their own lungs. Senator, snuff it out!
Yet, as much as we wait to hear what a presidential run will tell us about Obama, I expect the run to tell us even more about America. Already the national conversation about Obama has been like that surrounding no other presidential candidate that I have seen or imagined.
I hear, for example, from readers who admonish me to stop calling him black, since he is the mixed-race offspring of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya. Now hear this, folks: Media people call Barack black or African-American for several reasons, not the least of which is his own preference.
We are captives of this country’s peculiar custom, the almost unique one-drop rule dating to slavery times that defines as “black” anyone who has at least one drop of black Africa-originated blood.
Obama has not run away from the label, unlike, say, Tiger Woods, who famously told Oprah Winfrey that he likes to call himself a “Cablinasian,” for “Caucasian, Black, Indian and Asian.”
As a longtime observer of black politics, especially in Chicago, I can tell you that a substantial number of black voters are mightily suspicious and even personally offended by black folks who don’t want to be called black. Many are wary of anyone who sounds, for whatever reason, a bit too eager to abandon the tribe.
Absurd? Blame the inadequacies of our language to describe the historical complexities of the largely political and social construct that we call race. The chance to cut American life loose from such absurdities may, in itself, be boosting Obama’s popularity, even among those who don’t know much about his political beliefs. His sheer winnability as a black candidate or, if you prefer, not-all-white candidate offers a comforting reassurance to many that this country is not as racist as many Americans fear it still might be.
Black author and essayist Debra Dickerson in the Los Angeles Times called “the swooning from white people” about Obama “a paroxysm of self-congratulation.” That’s OK, America. Pat yourself on the back. Until 1967, marriages like the one that produced Obama still were illegal in 16 states.
Like then-Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) in 2004, Obama is fresh, new and exciting, in spite of his lack of national political experience. And, unlike Edwards, he offers a bonus: He assuages white guilt.
He also offers an alternative to the more extreme race-based politics of other media-anointed leaders like, say, Rev. Jesse Jackson or Rev. Al Sharpton. That might explain why Jackson and Sharpton have been noticeably restrained in their critiques of Obama.
Harry Belafonte, the singer-activist who called Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice “house slaves” on the Bush plantation, says America needs to be “careful” about Obama, according to the London Times: “We don’t know what he’s truly about.” The London Times headlined their piece “Obama’s charm lost on America’s black activists.” But, really, chaps, that’s stepping a bit too far past the cricket wicket. You wouldn’t have black leaders endorse Obama just because he’s black, would you?
Besides, much of Chicago’s black political establishment greeted Obama’s initial rise to the state Senate in 1996 with skepticism, since he had not been anointed by the kingmakers. Yet, he eventually won their support, including that of Mayor Richard Daley. Obama will have to do the same across America, as he pursues his presidential campaign. That’s what elections are for.
And that's why it’s good for America that Obama has decided to run. This is a big contest for him to enter. It’s just as big a test for the rest of us.