Obama’s Race

Although Obama’s appeal crosses ethnic lines, race still matters in the U.S.

Should Barack Obama run for president in 2008? The first-term Democratic senator from Illinois caused major political waves Sunday when he revealed on “Meet the Press” that he has given some thought to running for the White House in two years. Previously he had said that he would finish his six-year term in the Senate before considering a presidential bid.

Pundits have had a field day since Obama’s announcement. Even though the midterm election is in two weeks, the fervor with which political commentators have analyzed Obama’s prospects in 2008 reflects the magnitude of the next presidential election. It also suggests that Obama is no longer a rising star in the Democratic Party but “the star.”

Liberal and conservative pundits alike have praised Obama for his ambition and urged him to join the presidential race. Meanwhile, Americans of all ages are jumping on the “Obama bandwagon.” The “Barack Obama for President in 2008” Facebook group already has over 9,000 members. All of this is pretty remarkable, considering that the man hasn’t even served two full years in the Senate and was a virtual unknown before he gave the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention (DNC).

What’s even more remarkable is that in all of the commentary about Obama that has appeared in the papers and blogs this week, his racial identity has received very little attention. Here is an intelligent, charismatic man with bipartisan support who has a legitimate shot at becoming the first African-American nominee for president on a major party ticket, and no one wants to talk about his ethnicity. Why is that?

Unlike former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, who allied himself closely with minorities through his Rainbow Coalition, Obama has tried to win the support and trust of all stripes of Americans. During his brilliant DNC speech, “The Audacity of Hope,” he spoke about his African name, saying his parents believed “that in a tolerant America your name is no barrier to success.” That message resonated just as strongly with white immigrants as it did with ethnic minorities.

Throughout his brief political career, Obama has presented himself as someone who, as Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times, “can be all things to all people.” He is proud of his background but, like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, has not made an issue out of his racial identity. If citizens aren’t making an issue out of it, does that mean that we are finally realizing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream that all people, including political candidates, will “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”? Does a candidate’s race no longer matter to voters?

Not quite. We need look no further than New York to see that race still matters in politics. Earlier this year, David Yassky encountered resistance when he ran in the Democratic Congressional primary in Brooklyn’s majority-black 11th District. Residents called for him to drop out of the race because he was white. Yassky stuck it out but lost anyway to a black city councilwoman, Yvette D. Clarke.

In Memphis, the battle for the Ninth Congressional District seat has alienated the white candidate, State Senator Steve Cohen, from black constituents who believe the district would be better served by a black person because it is 60 percent black. The black candidate, however, is a high school dropout with no political experience.

All of this raises the question: Is a candidate automatically more qualified to represent people of the same race? The recent controversy in Newark, where some African-Americans have criticized the new mayor as “not black enough,” offers an interesting case study. Some felt that Cory Booker should not serve as mayor of Newark (54 percent black) because he was raised in a predominantly white suburb of New Jersey. Booker has had to prove his commitment to the city and its residents, especially by trying to decrease the crime rate, since he took office three months ago.

If ethnicity does matter to voters, why has so little been said about Obama’s background? Perhaps it’s simply too early to begin scrutinizing every aspect of a potential presidential candidate’s profile. (Let’s remember that he hasn’t even decided if he’s going to run in 2008.) Or perhaps Americans are simply more interested in Obama’s positions on Iraq and the economy than in his feelings about being a powerful black leader.

We really should be interested in both. A presidential run by Obama would present a good opportunity for the country to restart its on-again, off-again dialogue about race and racism. Obama, with his strong social consciousness and an unwavering belief in hope, is more than qualified to be president of a country with as diverse a population as ours.

Andrew C. Esensten ’07 is a literature and African American studies concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.


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