Will black voters overcome `fear of possibility'?

December 14, 2007|By CLARENCE PAGE

Andrew Young, a civil rights veteran and former U.N. ambassador, should stay away from microphones.

In videotaped comments that have taken the Internet by storm just recently, he says this: "I want Barack Obama to be president ... in 2016!"

Mr. Obama, the Illinois senator and Democratic presidential hopeful, is too young and too lacking in a support network to be pursuing the White House this time around, says Mr. Young.

Then he gets mischievous. He praises Democratic front-runner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, adding that her husband, former President Bill Clinton, is "every bit as black as Barack."

As the audience whoops and laughs, he quips, "He's probably gone with more black women than Barack." Mr. Young quickly adds, "I'm clowning."

I'm sure he was. In case you couldn't guess, Mr. Young supports Senator Clinton's bid for the White House. He even hosted a fundraiser for her. But with supporters like Mr. Young bringing up Mrs. Clinton's least favorite part of her husband's presidency, she doesn't need critics. And the line about Bill Clinton being America's first black president is wearing a little thin, especially when his wife is running against someone whose African bloodlines are more visibly apparent.

It is also worth noting that Mr. Young's remarks were taped in early September. They predate Mr. Obama's recent surge in the polls in the three early primary and caucus states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Mr. Young's remarks did not draw much attention until last weekend, just as Oprah Winfrey led rallies for Mr. Obama in the three states. The crossover stars, in front of cheering crowds, made Mr. Young's remarks sound like the grumpiness of an aging crusader whose mind is stuck in the 1960s.

Nevertheless, Mr. Young's remarks have a serious side. His ominous tone appeals to a gloomy view of Mr. Obama's prospects that I find remarkably common in black conversations. It is a surprisingly grim, willfully pessimistic view that endures despite Mr. Obama's recent surge in the polls. It is a view that says Mr. Obama can't win because "they" won't let him.

Who are "they"? Take your pick. The Republican smear machine. The FBI. The CIA. Crackpot assassins.

Or maybe just "The Man." There's always that old standby devil, institutional racism. In this view, popular with barbershop philosophers and the academic intellectual set, America is too saturated with white supremacy to ever give a black presidential candidate an even break. Or, if any actually do make it, well, they must be sellouts.

Pick your paranoia, and it will show up as a very real excuse in somebody's mind. After all of the hard-won opportunities that the civil rights movement opened up, I am disappointed by this gloomy outlook, but not surprised. Neither is Michelle Obama, the senator's wife. She attributed the hesitancy she hears in some African-Americans to "the natural fear of possibility."

Such fear is a natural byproduct of our historical memory as an oppressed people whose hopes too often have been dashed.

I'm old enough to have heard the same pessimism expressed by my Roman Catholic friends about John F. Kennedy's chances in 1960. I heard similar pessimism expressed by some of my Jewish friends about Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman in 2000. I hear it from countless women about Senator Clinton's chances now. If you expect the worst, many now figure, you won't be disappointed.

That presents a special challenge to Mr. Obama. Like other racial pioneers, he finds that he must run more than an ordinary campaign. He has to build a movement across racial lines that can tap into the same spirit of the civil rights movement.

I don't know if he can win any more than anyone else does. My crystal ball isn't that good. But with help from spiritual revivalists such as Ms. Winfrey, he can build that new movement, especially if old movement leaders get out of his way.

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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