Obama unlike any politician, black or white

July 03, 2008|By THOMAS F. SCHALLER

Democratic Sen. Barack Obama is the first nonwhite candidate in U.S. history to win a major-party presidential nomination. That fact alone makes him a tradition-breaking, political pioneer.

Much less discussed is that Mr. Obama is an atypical, nontraditional African-American politician, too.

I'm not talking about Mr. Obama's rhetorical abilities or personal charisma, which set him apart from the vast majority of American politicians of all races. I refer instead to five aspects of Mr. Obama's biography that make him unique even among America's black political class.

For starters, Mr. Obama has one white parent and, consequently, has a light complexion. This may seem irrelevant to some, but having a white Kansan for a mother allows Mr. Obama to connect his identity to a wider group of Americans. During the early stages of the Democratic primary, Mr. Obama's stump speech included a standard joke about how it was a bit of a "bummer" that a search of his genealogical past revealed that he is a distant cousin of Republican Vice President Dick Cheney.

Second, Mr. Obama's black half is continental African. This means his ancestry on his Kenyan father's side of the family is of more recent immigrant stock, and that his family's American experience contrasts starkly with that of African-Americans who descended from slave populations brought involuntarily to America hundreds of years ago.

Taken together, these first two characteristics are a fitting departure for a man who may become the president of a nation where the share of mixed-race citizens is growing, and more than one in 15 new marriages is interracial.

Occupational background is another difference between Mr. Obama and many of the prominent African-American candidates who preceded him.

Before the civil rights movement of the 1960s, segregation and discrimination made it difficult for most African-Americans to attain status in the fields of business or law, the two most common pre-political occupations of elected officials. Instead, the black church often served as the key proving ground for aspiring black politicians. As my University of Maryland, Baltimore County colleague Tyson King-Meadows and I documented in our 2006 book about black state legislators, the share of black legislators with clerical backgrounds remains higher than it does for white legislators.

During the primaries, a great deal of controversy arose over Mr. Obama's relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., his former pastor in Chicago. There may be some truth to speculation that Mr. Obama joined Mr. Wright's large, influential church to gain credibility (and votes) for his first electoral race for the Illinois Senate.

But Mr. Obama sat in the pews rather than standing at the pulpit, and he worked as a community activist, not as a preacher, before entering electoral politics.

Mr. Obama's class and childhood experience constitute a fourth characteristic of distinction.

Though he later moved to the south side of Chicago to become a community organizer, Mr. Obama was not raised as part of the urban underclass. Rather, his initial upbringing was middle class, and he lived in places (Indonesia, Hawaii) that are unfamiliar to the vast majority of American adolescents, white or black.

Finally, Mr. Obama is Ivy League-educated, as opposed to a product of one of the many historically black colleges across the United States. He graduated from Columbia University and then, after that stint as a local activist in Chicago, in 1991 finished a law degree at Harvard.

There are American black leaders who share some of these five characteristics, but it is hard to identify even a single one who shares them all.

The identities of the two most recent serious African-American candidates for president - the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson in 1984 and 1988 and the Rev. Al Sharpton in 2004 - are much more traditional in terms of their bloodlines, family histories, education, occupations and educational backgrounds. Of course, neither Mr. Jackson nor Mr. Sharpton came close to winning the Democratic nomination. Although both espoused liberal views fairly similar to Mr. Obama's, they were handicapped by their identities as "racialized" candidates.

The fact that he is not just a different American politician but an atypical African-American politician has played a significant role in Mr. Obama's history-making run this year.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly in The Sun. His e-mail is schaller67@ gmail.com.

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