Obama's rise signals shift

January 07, 2008|By CYNTHIA TUCKER

ATLANTA -- In a recent Atlantic Monthly essay touting Barack Obama, political commentator Andrew Sullivan revealed his disappointment with a speech the Illinois senator gave on tax policy in September. Like many other pundits who heard the speech, Mr. Sullivan was less than enthusiastic, describing the address as "wooden, stilted, even tedious."

But as Mr. Sullivan noted, that was part of its appeal. "It was only after I left the hotel that it occurred to me that I'd just been bored on tax policy by a national black leader. That I should have been struck by this was born in my own racial stereotypes, of course. But it won me over," he wrote.

What? No rhythm or rhyme?

Mr. Obama's insistence on defying stereotypes has been at the core of his popularity. He is bright, sometimes boring, often engaging, thoughtful, occasionally cranky, visionary, usually well-informed, sometimes slightly self-righteous. Oh, yeah. And black. Always. In other words, he is a presidential candidate who happens to be black - not a black presidential candidate. For those of us eager for America to grow into a mature accommodation with its racial diversity, that's refreshing, hopeful, reinvigorating.

In another 30 days or so, it will be clear whether Mr. Obama's campaign is a mere moment of wonder and curiosity or a genuine political movement. His most daunting test will come Feb. 5, a "Tsunami Tuesday" of multistate primaries and caucuses. If he loses most of those critical contests, his presidential campaign will likely be too wounded to limp forward.

He wouldn't be a failure by any means. He'd have done his part to further the "post-racial" realignment of American politics, along with such distinguished officials as Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, Colin L. Powell, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and even former Tennessee Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr., who lost his 2006 bid for a Senate seat but only by 3 percentage points. Mr. Obama would return to the Senate with the experience he's gained from the campaign trail.

But Mr. Obama will be in the game for South Carolina's Jan. 26 Democratic primary, forcing pundits and voters alike to fully evaluate his potential as the next president of the United States. And that will take the American electorate to a place we've never been. He will be tested. So will we.

While this country has made great strides toward genuine racial equality over the last 50 years, we're still hampered by a race-consciousness that lurks just below the surface, in our reptilian brains, where stereotype, prejudice and unconscious judgments override rational considerations. That's true for all of us - black, white and brown. Indeed, in sizing up the presidential aspirants, some black Americans have themselves resorted to racially charged assessments. Last fall, in a rambling and nonsensical endorsement of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, civil rights legend Andrew Young - who, believe it or not, was once a diplomat - declared: "Hillary has Bill behind her, and Bill is every bit as black as Barack. He's probably gone with more black women than Barack." Oh, my goodness.

Since Mr. Obama announced his intention to seek the presidency, he has been dogged by a persistent undercurrent that suggests he is somehow not quite "black enough" - a thread eagerly pursued by mainstream reporters and analysts. At the very least, an Obama surge should get us past that foolishness.

For their part, white voters contend they are willing to consider a "qualified" black candidate for president. According to Pew Center researchers, a review of exit polls and electoral outcomes in recent elections featuring black candidates running against whites "suggests that fewer people are making judgments about candidates based solely, or even mostly, on race." Perhaps so. But even as white voters profess themselves colorblind to pollsters, they whisper a worrisome fear that neighbors or people they know still harbor prejudices that might preclude voting for a black presidential candidate.

Whatever happens, this has been a transformational moment in American politics. Mr. Obama has already achieved something that would have seemed impossible just a few decades ago.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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