Obama will be put to test, and so will we

January 19, 2007|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 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, Mr. 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, Mr. Obama actually has a chance to be nominated and, perhaps, even win the grand prize.

Win or lose, he now faces the big questions, such as: 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.

Yet, as much as we wait to hear what a presidential run will tell us about Mr. Obama, I expect the run to tell us even more about America.

I hear from readers who admonish me to stop calling him black, because 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 Mr. Obama 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 "one-drop rule" dating to slavery times that defines as "black" anyone who has at least one drop of black Africa-originated blood.

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 Mr. 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, a 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 Mr. Obama "a paroxysm of self-congratulation." That's OK, America. Pat yourself on the back. Until 1967, marriages like the one that produced Mr. Obama still were illegal in 16 states.

Like John Edwards in 2004, Mr. Obama is fresh, new and exciting, in spite of his lack of national political experience. And, unlike Mr. Edwards, a former senator from North Carolina, 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 such as, say, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson or the Rev. Al Sharpton. That might explain why Mr. Jackson and Mr. Sharpton have been noticeably restrained in their appraisals of Mr. Obama.

Much of Chicago's black political establishment greeted Mr. Obama's initial rise to the state Senate in 1996 with skepticism, because he had not been anointed by the kingmakers. Yet he eventually won their support, including that of Mayor Richard M. Daley. Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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