The Race Question

Can Barack Obama convince other Africian-Americans that a black man can be elected president? His chances for the Democratic nomination may depend on it.

January 13, 2008|By Alia Malik | Alia Malik,Special to The Sun

After Sen. Barack Obama won the Jan. 3 Democratic caucuses in white-as-snow Iowa, he and his campaign wasted no time trying to put one idea to rest: that white voters would never accept the candidate because of his race.

But some African-Americans remain unconvinced, and their doubts could undermine Obama's presidential campaign, a possibility that grew after his defeat in the New Hampshire primary.

Don't get black voters wrong - they say he is their pride, their cause for excitement and hope that the future will hold more acceptance and better times.

After Obama's victory in Iowa, Melissa Harris-Lacewell, an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University, watched him on TV as he stood on the stage facing a mob of supporters, his black wife and daughter by his side, doing the presidential wave.

"I woke up my 5-year-old daughter and said, `Look, look, look!' " said Harris- Lacewell, who supports Obama. "Because it's just so beautiful."

Still, even as most plan to cast their votes for Obama, blacks of varied class and education levels say they are worried that his skin color could keep him from the White House - or, if he makes it to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., he won't be able to achieve a hoped-for new era in race relations.

Voters are concerned about his relative lack of political experience, surveys indicate. Obama has a lot of competition from Hillary Clinton for the black vote, partly for that reason, said Ronald Walters, a government and politics professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"You can't get past the major reservation, which is the reason a lot of people went to Hillary in the first place, which is that Hillary can deliver the goods," said Walters, who said he supports Obama nevertheless. "The biggest concern is that he hasn't been in public life as much as Hillary."

Beyond experience, race looms as a potential obstacle. From the day Obama seemed likely to run for president, blacks have expressed concerns that he would lose the primary or general elections because of his race, said Michael Dawson, the John D. MacArthur professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

"A substantial number of black people do think he will win the nomination and the general election," said Dawson, who does not publicly support any candidate. But "the doubts certainly linger."

In a close election, Obama's race could be his downfall, said Daniel McDougal, 26, an African-American barber at Beltway Barbers in Greenbelt, hours before the votes were tallied in New Hampshire. Whites "are not ready for a different ethnic race in there," McDougal said.

Those doubts were expressed statistically in a November report by the Pew Research Center. Nearly four in 10 African-Americans thought that Obama's race would hurt his chances in the general election, even if he won the Democratic nomination, according to the study.

The fear that Obama's ethnicity might lower his chances of election increased after he lost in New Hampshire despite a lead in the polls that seemed to foreshadow a win. The primary raised suspicions that whites were telling pollsters they would vote for Obama, when they really intended to vote for one of his white opponents.

"Often, people say one thing in a poll and do another thing in the voting booth," said Robert Smith, a political science professor at San Francisco State University who supports Obama.

Older African-Americans are especially anxious about Obama's chances, political scientists said, because they remember past promising black candidates who polled well but did not win the numbers game.

Tom Bradley, the 1982 Democratic candidate for governor of California, is one oft-cited example. Polls showed him leading his white opponent by a large margin, but Bradley was soundly defeated when Election Day came around.

Some also mention a few close-call victories, including those of Harold Washington, who became Chicago's first black mayor in 1983, and L. Douglas Wilder, winner of the 1989 Virginia gubernatorial election. The African-American Democrats had unquestioned leads over their white Republican adversaries in the polls, but ended up winning by a hair.

But that's all in the past, Obama has said, arguing that his phenomenal success is a testament to America's great progress on race relations - progress enough to elect the first black president. Many black voters agree.

"He said he had more faith in white people than that," Smith said. "People thought that white people in downstate Illinois would not vote for him, but that was proven wrong."

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