Who's right when race lies below the surface?

February 06, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

Maybe Joe Biden just verbalized what a lot of people were thinking.

He did it crudely, of course, and the senator from Delaware has been roundly and rightly pundit-pummeled for calling Barack Obama, one of his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy."

That sound you're hearing is merely the bursting of a big thought bubble that's been hovering unspoken over the heads of many people. What Biden seemed to be trying to articulate - and it's only a guess, since it came out in such an inarticulate way - was why the political rock star Obama has such crossover appeal.

I almost feel sorry for Biden, trying to make his way through the minefield that is race and politics. When it comes to that subject, either we can't quite bring ourselves to talk about it, or if we do, it often comes out funny.

Whether it's a prominent Baltimore attorney raising eyebrows by warning African-American candidates for mayor that they could split the black vote and unwittingly turn the office over to a white person, or Biden's ham-handed assessment of Obama's appeal, race remains a political hot button.

And yet it's unavoidable, especially now with the emergence of Obama, which has upended the usual political equations. While previous black candidates like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton drew much black support, the crowds that have flocked to Obama's book signings and other appearances are often largely white. African-Americans, meanwhile, are not as uniformly dazzled at this stage of his still-young candidacy: According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, for example, black Democrats favor Hillary Clinton over him by a 3-to-1 margin.

The irony, of course, is that although Obama is truly African-American - his father is a black African and his mother is a white American - he isn't African-American in the way that it's come to be defined.

"Does he really represent me?" is how Ronald Walters, the University of Maryland political scientist and director of the African American Leadership Institute there, frames the question that some blacks have of Obama.

"As someone who is of different parentage than most African-Americans, he has to earn the trust of African-American voters," Walters says.

And he's done that to a large extent, Walters believes, given that he's married to a black woman and lived in black neighborhoods. "He's done all the things to say, `I'm with you.'"

And yet, because of his unique lineage, he's not as threatening to white voters as someone who, like many American blacks, descended from slaves, Walters says. "The traditional African-American identity is more threatening, because it raises ... the culpability of whites in slavery."

If nothing else, Biden's remarks have put an usually unspoken topic out there. Or rather, further out there - already there had been a few tentative stories in the media looking at Obama's appeal to whites, with the undercurrent question of whether he was "black enough."

It's interesting that someone like Obama - as well as Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, likewise the son of a black father and a white mother - is more often described as black rather than biracial. Walters thinks it goes back to the old one-drop-of-blood definition, and while you can define yourself any way you want, how the larger culture defines you tends to prevail. If you look black, in other words, you're treated black.

Still, the excitement that Obama has generated may signal a change for a future in which racial boundaries aren't quite so defined in politics - or where race is merely the starting point in defining someone, rather than the only one.

For now, Obama can sometimes seem like a party of one because of his unique biography. Maybe he's not so much biracial as ambiracial. He can't quite be placed in the usual categories, especially the ones we have for black politicians, having grown up in Hawaii, for example.

"Obama is in an unusual position," says Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins. "He's had a very unusual upbringing that's set him apart."

But, he says, that will change: "It'll become less of an issue as we get to know him better."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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