Racial identification becomes debate topic on the campaign trail

February 20, 2007|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Barack Obama's presidential quest has launched some revealing conversations, particularly about what makes a black person "black."

Even for those who think, as I do, that the answer is breathtakingly obvious, the question is not frivolous. For Mr. Obama, the son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, the emerging media narrative invites a re-examination of widely held assumptions. Is race a matter of color? Ancestry? Or experiences?

"There are African-Americans who don't think that you're black enough, who don't think that you have had the required experience," reporter Steve Kroft said to Mr. Obama during a recent 60 Minutes profile.

"The truth of the matter," Mr. Obama mused, "is when I'm walking down the South Side of Chicago, and visiting my barbershop, and playing basketball in some of these neighborhoods, those aren't questions I get asked."

No, those are the kinds of questions some people ask when you're the first black presidential candidate to have a viable chance of winning the White House.

"I also notice when I'm catching a cab," he said. "Nobody's confused about that, either." That was a significant line. In our racially complicated society, you're not just the race - or races - that you say you are. You're also the race other people say you are.

The big question for past black presidential candidates had been whether they could even get white votes. For Mr. Obama, the emerging question has been whether he can attract black voters. In Washington Post/ABC News polls in December and January, 60 percent of black voters said they would vote for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, compared with 20 percent for Mr. Obama. That surprised many people.

Polls also have shown that about half of voters overall, including blacks, say they don't know enough about Mr. Obama to have an opinion about him. Mr. Obama knows that he has to overcome a lot of goodwill that Senator Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, built up among black voters, politicians and Democratic operatives over the years.

Blacks worried about whether Mr. Obama is "black enough" might be reassured by the grumblings of others who think he is too black.

Mr. Obama quite sensibly observed in his 60 Minutes interview that he did not "decide" to be black. "If you look African-American in this society, you're treated as an African-American," he said, "and when you're a child, in particular, that is how you begin to identify yourself."

That response rankled talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh, who apparently thinks race is something we can put on or take off like a suit. If Mr. Obama did not "decide" his race, Mr. Limbaugh declared, "well, renounce it, then. If it's not something you want to be, if you didn't decide it, renounce it, become white!"

Ah, if only it were that easy.

Moving up fast in that silliness derby, talk-radio host Glenn Beck declared Mr. Obama to be "colorless." "As a white guy ... you don't notice that he is black," Mr. Beck said. "So he might as well be white, you know what I mean?"

Why all the fuss about what Mr. Obama calls himself? Whether Mr. Obama had the "black American experience" before, he certainly appears to be getting it now.

Part of that experience is to hear other people argue over what you should call yourself. In fact, if you don't have the right to call yourself what you want to call yourself, you don't have much freedom at all.

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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