My view has always been that I’m African American. African American by definition, we’re a hybrid people. One of the things I loved about my mother was not only did she not feel rejected by me defining myself as an African American, but she recognized that I was a black man in the United States and my experiences were going to be different than hers.
My daughters will grow up with a cousin who looks entirely Asian but who carries my blood in him. It’s pretty hard not to claim that larger community.
Barack Obama is just the fifth African American to serve in the U.S. Senate and only the third since the Reconstruction era. During Reconstruction, two African Americans were appointed from Mississippi to serve in the U.S. Senate. Hiram Rhodes Revels served only two years, 1870–1871, and Blanche Kelso Bruce served from 1875 to 1898. Edward Brooke was elected in 1966 as a Republican from Massachusetts for two terms. Interestingly, the state of Illinois sent the two most recent blacks to the Senate: Obama in 2004 and Democrat Carol Moseley-Braun in 1992. Furthermore, in 2004, for the first time in American history, African Americans were the U.S. Senate candidates from both the Democratic and Republican parties.
Racial issues continue to be an important aspect of American politics. The Obama campaign illustrates the progress people of color have made in winning public office, and it allows us to explore the role race plays in politics today. The candidacy of Barack Obama permits an examination of the changing climate and political culture for minority politicians. This chapter will explore the constraints that black candidates have faced in the past and how Obama’s racial background was perceived on the campaign trail. The factors that distinguished this campaign from previous attempts by people of color to win statewide office will also be considered. In a perhaps ironic twist, one campaign theme questioned whether Obama was black enough! We begin the discussion with an overview of the experiences of other recent black candidates for statewide office.
BLACK CANDIDATES IN STATEWIDE ELECTIONS
Black candidates have usually taken one of two campaign strategies: reach out to a coalition of black and liberal voters or downplay race and attempt to attract those in the middle of the road politically. Carol Moseley-Braun, the last African American U.S. Senator before Obama, targeted blacks and the liberal Lakeshore voters of Chicago, especially in her primary campaign. She also received significant support from white suburban women, however, as discussed in chapter 2. The primary race was extremely divisive. While her opponents destroyed each other, Braun garnered a paltry 38 percent of the vote to win the nomination. She then rode Bill Clinton’s coattails to win against an underfunded right-wing Republican opponent.
Harvey Gantt, the black, charismatic, pro-business, former mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, lost twice in races for the U.S. Senate to Jesse Helms, who encouraged white resentment of affirmative action.
New York state comptroller Carl McCall lost by sixteen points to Republican George Pataki in the 2002 gubernatorial campaign, even though New York has two million more registered Democrats than Republicans.
Missouri Representative Alan Wheat lost his 1994 race for the U.S. Senate against former governor John Ashcroft because black voter turnout was low. Wheat had spent too much time courting the white vote, which alienated his presumed African American base.
On the other hand, Douglas Wilder was successful taking the middle-of-the-road approach in his bid to be Virginia’s governor. He deemphasized race so much that he would sometimes not even appear in his own campaign commercials. His record in the military and in the state senate was touted. Wilder won by less than 1 percent, and the support
of pro-choice Republican women was an important factor.
The number, variety, and quality of black statewide candidates significantly increased in elections after 2000. Although some black candidates were not successful in the primary race, many were serious contenders. Also of significance was that both the Democratic and
Republican Parties were fielding serious black candidates.
In 2004, Democratic Congresswoman Denise Majette abandoned her campaign for reelection to pursue the Senate seat from Georgia being vacated by Zell Miller, while another African American, Herman Cain, former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, failed to win the Republican nomination. He was thought to be the most conservative candidate in the race.
Although Majette won the Democratic nomination, she was soundly defeated in the general election.
In 2006, Massachusetts, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee had high-level political races with black candidates. Democrat Deval Patrick was elected governor of Massachusetts, becoming only the second African American to win a state chief executive post by popular vote. Kweisi Mfume, former congressman and NAACP leader, vied unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in Maryland, losing to Benjamin Cardin, 43.7 percent to 40.5 percent.
Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele, the first black to win statewide office in Maryland, won the Republican nomination but lost to Cardin.
In Tennessee, Congressman Harold Ford, Jr., lost his bid for the U.S. Senate by less than three percentage points.
Two African Americans won the Republican nomination for governor in 2006, but lost handily in the general election. Lynn Swann, the former Pittsburgh Steeler, ran in Pennsylvania. Kenneth Blackwell, who had been elected Ohio’s Secretary of State, was also unable to take the governor’s mansion. He was considered the most conservative Republican candidate.
INSTITUTIONAL CONSTRAINTS ON BLACK CANDIDATES
Historically, African Americans have not done well outside of predominantly black communities. Black politicians like Jesse Jackson, Sr., originally had their base in the civil rights movement, when gaining representation for minorities was itself the objective. However, this institutional development also focused these candidates on policy issues that were of greatest concern to the inner-city poor. Racially gerrymandered congressional districts created after the post-1990 Census redistricting and supported by the Supreme Court for a while intensified this focus. In any event, to win at the district level requires candidates to emphasize issues of great significance to black communities, such as affirmative action, leading them to appear to be soft on crime and as favoring big government programs. These stances often limit their appeal to whites such as soccer moms or rural voters. Noam Scheiber explains, ‘‘The reason for the poor showing is that African American candidates for state-wide office nearly always end up in a catch-22. Attempts to motivate their African American base usually alienate white moderates. And, when black candidates try to tailor their message to white moderates, they dampen enthusiasm among African Americans and liberals.’’ Obama has had to balance these warring viewpoints. As his former Illinois state senate colleague Kirk Dillard noted, ‘‘I feel sorry for this guy, because he’s got to justify himself to blacks and whites alike.’’
Clearly the Obama campaign was aware of the need for biracial appeals. As Barack Obama himself said, ‘‘We have a certain script in our politics, and one of the scripts for black politicians is that for them to be authentically black they have to somehow offend white people. To use a street term, we flipped the script.’’ As suggested above, however, black politicians like Obama have to prove that they are not abandoning the African American community when multiracial coalitions are assembled, while no longer concerning themselves with just racial grievances and civil rights. The comments of prominent African American scholar Cornel West, an Obama critic turned supporter, are one illustration of the complex racial environment in which Obama operates. West said, ‘‘I don’t care what color you are … you can’t take black people for granted just ‘cause you’re black.’ ’’
Another institutional impediment to black statewide electoral success is that African Americans were historically concentrated in southern states with white populations less likely to be open to minority candidates. In 1910, 90 percent of blacks lived in the south, and 54 percent still do today. Garance Franke-Ruta noted, ‘‘In an era in which ethnic and racial diversity are heralded as the result of liberal values, it’s also important to recall that the presence of large numbers of African Americans in some regions of the United States and not others is, in fact, a legacy of America’s most illiberal chapter. When it comes to black elected officials, geography has for too long been destiny.’’ The majority of African Americans are found in just twenty-two states. Only two northern states—Michigan and Illinois—are in the top ten for the highest number of elected black officials. Franke-Ruta explained, ‘‘This demography has created unique challenges for African American politicians with national or statewide ambitions. Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana may lead the way in the election of black officials, but they are also places where white voters are less likely to vote across racial lines.’’ In other words, African American politicians may be elected in majority-minority districts, but they still struggle to win in statewide contests.
DISCRIMINATION AND BLACK CANDIDATES
Racial discrimination is another factor in the difficulty of electing African Americans to statewide offices. The impact of racial bigotry is hard to measure, but the research of political science professor Philip Klinkner estimates it at 5 percent of the vote. In preelection surveys, black candidates are sometimes ahead by as much as ten percentage points, but come election time, black candidates may lose or win by a very narrow margin. This was Virginia Governor Wilder’s experience in 1989. Whites would not publicly admit to being racist, but when the curtain was closed to vote, the racial baggage that has plagued this country made them question black political power and leadership.
Many white Americans have negative perceptions of black Americans, yet hold positive images of newly arrived African or West Indian immigrants. Native blacks are viewed as more prone to crime and less responsible, while new black immigrants are seen as hard-working and pursuing the American dream. Obama’s exotic last name did not sound like a traditionally American black name, and he consequently did not have to overcome some of the bigotry that other African American candidates experience. When Obama was associated with other black public officials, like Jesse Jackson, Jr., however, his standing with white suburban and exurban voters diminished. Nevertheless, with Chicago’s deep Irish roots, one commentator suggested Obama would do better with the last name of O’Bama.
Barack Obama represents a new age of African American public officials. The background of black politicians has changed dramatically, and Obama is the face of the next generation. Older black politicians tended to be from segregated communities and local political cultures.
Because of the civil rights movement, younger black politicians experienced a more integrated world, though hardly one without discrimination. Many younger black officials attended elite, predominantly white educational institutions. Recently elected black officials, such as Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, and Maryland Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown try to appeal to all races in their campaigns, but dismiss the term ‘‘post-racial’’ as a media construct. They feel this term negates the benefits they have received from African American politicians of the past. ‘‘Though still rooted in and nurtured by predominantly black political districts, the new generation’s comfort in a highly competitive, integrated world may well allow its members to reach out across the racial lines they have been bridging their whole lives and gain support in white districts as well,’’ stated Franke-Ruta. Among black elected officials over the age of sixty-five, 76 percent attended segregated high schools, while only 34 percent of those under the age of forty did. Nearly 70 percent of those over sixty-five years old attended historically black colleges, compared to 37 percent of those under forty.
David Bositis, senior scholar at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, remarked, ‘‘It gives them advantages that older generations of African Americans did not have.’’ Obama stated, ‘‘The African American community is not divorced from larger trends in the country.
It’s harder to obtain leadership positions in a modern highly technological society without some familiarity with the institutions of leadership.’’
BLACKS IN ILLINOIS POLITICS
Whatever disadvantages (or advantages) Obama’s racial background creates, running in Illinois undoubtedly helped his Senate candidacy.
As noted earlier, Illinois has a history of electing black officials to state-wide office, and the state has probably elected more black statewide officials than any state in the country. The state is unique as it has a fairly middle-of-the road voting public and, unlike other liberal northern states such as Minnesota, has a fairly large African American constituency comprising about 15 percent of the population.
The most successful African American politicians in Illinois were Roland Burris, who won statewide office four times, and Jesse White, who has done so three times. Burris made history by becoming the first African American to hold statewide office in Illinois. He was elected three times as state comptroller (1978, 1982, and 1986) and once as attorney general in 1990. Burris lost to Paul Simon in the 1984 U.S. Senate primary. He unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for governor in 1998 and in 2002. Burris had excellent qualifications, experience, and name recognition, but, in contrast to Obama, he was seen as unexciting and an establishment candidate. In previous elections, Burris had carried up to 90 percent of the black community’s vote. In the 2002 gubernatorial election, however, the majority of black leaders supported a white candidate with a background in education, Paul Vallas.
White was elected secretary of state in 1998, and was reelected in 2002 and 2006. Carol Moseley-Braun was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992, but lost her bid for reelection in 1998. Two other black candidates won Democratic primaries, but lost in the general election. Cecil Partee, the first black candidate for statewide office in Illinois, lost his bid for attorney general in 1976, and Earlean Collins was defeated for comptroller in 1994.
There is little doubt that the success of black candidates in the past helped Obama’s cause. Not only did they show that African Americans could win, but they provided a blueprint for doing so, especially in the case of Carol Moseley-Braun’s senate campaign. Like Obama, the most successful black candidates had ‘‘crossover appeal.’’ Before his unsuccessful gubernatorial bid in 1998, Burris was known as a politician who had ‘‘made a career of not running as a black candidate.’’ He was so unthreatening that he was deemed ‘‘a tanner version of Al Gore, smart but stiff, politically astute, but pretty starchy.’’ Carol Moseley-Braun appealed to white suburban women in winning her 1992 senate campaign. Before winning election as Cook County recorder of deeds, Secretary of State Jesse White had represented a state legislative district in which blacks were the minority.
Nevertheless, it is also clear that Obama differs from previous African American politicians. To begin with, most previous black candidates have depended on the Chicago Democratic machine to help them succeed.
For years the machine had depended on black votes, despite often providing little in return other than limited housing choices and poor public schools. By the 1970s, black voters and politicians had grown restless with this state of affairs, threatening Mayor Richard J. Daley’s political future, forcing him to put black politicians in higher level positions. In 1976, state senate president Cecil Partee was slated for the statewide office of attorney general in an effort to reach out to black voters. The move was perhaps somewhat cynical, as Partee was given little chance against incumbent Republican William Scott, and some saw the nomination as a ploy to clear the way for the mayor’s son, Richard M. Daley, to become state senate president. Nevertheless, the decision set a precedent for a black candidate to be slated for statewide office in future elections, even after Mayor Daley’s death in December 1976.
Candidates who were more successful than Partee also had machine ties. Roland Burris began his career as an independent Democrat. He ran unsuccessfully for comptroller in 1976, losing by over 500,000 votes and losing Chicago by over 250,000.In 1978, running with the machine’s sup- port, he won Chicago by nearly 170,000 votes, which accounted for most of his statewide plurality. Jesse White’s mentor was a prominent machine figure, former Cook County Democratic Party chair and Cook County Board President George Dunne. White’s biographer describes Dunne as akin to the ‘‘grease that lubricates the engine’’ of the machine.
A second contrast with Obama is that most previous black statewide candidates have struggled to raise money, perhaps explaining why they have been more successful in winning the ‘‘down ballot’’ offices like comptroller and secretary of state. For example, Roland Burris’s gubernatorial campaigns were underfunded compared to his Democratic rivals in 1998 and 2002. Burris explained, ‘‘It’s a concrete ceiling. You have to overcome the lack of resources and overcome those who believe a black man can’t win the top job in the state and even black people who believe a person of color can’t be governor.’’ Obama, on the other hand, more than held his own in fundraising.
Finally, Obama was able to generate much more support outside Chicago than other black candidates, who largely depended on the city as an electoral base. Because Obama ran against another African American in the general election, perhaps the best way to illustrate this is to compare his success in the Democratic primary to that of other African Americans.
OBAMA FOR ILLINOIS
In this section we examine how Obama handled racial issues in his Senate race. On the campaign trail, Barack Obama used his racial back-ground in a way that would appeal to voters of all races, mentioning that his father was from Kenya and his mother was from Kansas. As discussed earlier, he used his unusual surname to help him avoid some of the discrimination other black candidates have faced. His life was framed as part of the great American narrative of rising above challenges, even though Obama benefited from many upper middle-class institutions, such as private schools. In his first television advertisement, the telegenic candidate looked directly into the camera and stated, ‘‘They said an African American had never led the Harvard Law Review—until I changed that. Now they say we can’t change Washington, D.C.… I approved this message to say, ‘Yes, we can.’ ’’ David Axel rod, a media consultant to Obama, remarked, ‘‘It worked on two levels.
For those for whom the knocking down of barriers is important, it was very important. For others, Harvard Law Review was a big credential.’’
One issue in the primary was whether Obama could mobilize the black community. Obama actively campaigned in black churches in Chicago and on the city’s south side for months before the primary, giving sermon-like stump speeches in the vein of Martin Luther King, Jr.
He echoed a message of inclusion and the need to lift everyone up. The call-and-response speech technique resonated with these listeners and seemed natural for Obama. Fifteen hundred people attended a speech given at the Liberty Baptist Church.
In early March 2003, polls showed about 38 percent of blacks behind him. Obama aired a television spot in early March invoking the memory of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor and a beloved figure in African American communities. Congressman Danny Davis stated,
‘‘He has built a solid feeling among African Americans, renewed their hope, re-energized the base, and there is more energy than I’ve seen since Harold Washington.’’ The advertisement also featured the daughter of the late U.S. Senator Paul Simon, which called out to white liberals. Television advertisements highlighting his legislative record gave him greater name recognition by the end of the month, by which time he had the support of 62 percent of African Americans. Obama’s support among blacks increased as his chances of winning the primary improved, after Blair Hull’s divorce records became public. Obama told a group of black professionals, ‘‘I’ve got brothers saying ‘I’ve been with you all along,’ but you know they haven’t been.’’
Obama’s appeal in the primary was widespread. Many black voters indicated that they did not vote for him just because of the color of his skin. A construction worker commented, ‘‘It’s what he’s about that matters. It’s not color, skin, or race. It’s the words he speaks.’’ Black voters said much of his appeal came from his outreach in the neighborhoods and in the churches. An election judge in Chicago remarked, ‘‘For a lack of a better word, it’s like he’s multicolored. He’s everyone’s candidate.’’
For the most part, blacks voted in the Democratic primary rather than the Republican one. In the city of Chicago’s twenty majority-black wards,
Jack Ryan, the Republican primary winner, received 1,443 votes, com- pared to Obama’s 193,477 votes.
Obama did well in the white-collar counties surrounding Chicago. Although finishing third downstate in the primary, he had a respectable showing in the region, performing better than Carol Moseley-Braun had twelve years earlier. He was able to achieve this success without undermining his base of support in black Chicago and with liberal whites. Obama’s victory signaled a new era in racial politics. Obama was received like a rock star in small, downstate Illinois towns. In mostly white Danville, Illinois, population forty thousand, 650 people came out for a rally, the largest turnout in decades. Obama took the question of racial difference head-on, remarking, ‘‘We have shared values, values that aren’t black or white or Hispanic; values that are American and Democratic.’’
Lowell Jacobs, a retired plumber in Rock Falls, Illinois, was one of only two Democratic County chairmen outside of the Chicago region to endorse Obama in the primary. He commented, ‘‘Obama tells you the hard truths, and other politicians, particularly from Chicago, they tend to tell you what they think you want to hear. Barack’s got something different. He makes you feel like he’s not a politician, but a leader.’’
Columnist David Moberg noted, ‘‘Obama demonstrates how a progressive politician can redefine mainstream political symbols to expand support for liberal policies and politicians rather than engage in creeping capitulation to the right.’’
White candidates emphasized that they cared about the plight of blacks. Jack Ryan compared himself to Bill Clinton in his level of concern about black issues. Ryan said, ‘‘If you look at my life history, you’ll see that I care a lot, too. The same people who were drawn to Bill Clinton will be drawn to me.’’ Obama remarked, ‘‘Unfortunately, I don’t see anything in Mr. Ryan’s embrace of George Bush’s agenda that will appeal to African American voters who are disproportionally working people more likely to lack health insurance, need jobs or need more funding for their schools.’’
In August 2003, Congressman Bobby Rush produced a radio advertisement for Blair Hull that aired on stations popular with black listeners. In it Rush said that Hull was ‘‘an independent voice who will make sure that we get our fair share.… Blair Hull, like me, comes from a working-class family and served in the Army. Blair Hull, like me, is committed to affordable health care, improving schools, making sure we can get a fair shake, and creating jobs to bring stability back into our communities.’’ Obama dismissed the claim by pointing to his own record of service to the black community and questioning Hull’s new- found interest in these issues.
Black leaders endorsing Obama included the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., and Illinois senate president Emil Jones. Congressman Bobby Rush, whom Obama unsuccessfully challenged in the 2000 Democratic Primary, supported Blair Hull, while Cook County board president John Stroger backed Hynes. Stroger is a longtime friend of Dan Hynes’s father, Chicago’s Nineteenth Ward committeeman. Despite this, Obama received more than 90 percent of the vote in Stroger’s ward. In Hynes’s own predominantly white north side ward, Obama garnered a majority of the vote. In the southwest side ward of Hynes’s father, Obama netted 40 percent of the vote.
His campaign in the general election was the first time in U.S. Senate history that two African Americans were pitted against each other. The selection of Alan Keyes as the Republican candidate after Jack Ryan withdrew, though, was not without much controversy. Many people felt that the selection of Keyes was based more on race than anything else. Salim Muwakkil, a columnist for In These Times, wrote, ‘‘Tellingly, the same GOP leaders who selected Keyes never before managed to slate a black candidate to run for a major office in Illinois. Their choice of outsider Keyes was not just a cynical racial ploy: It was a slap in the face of the state’s Republican electorate. It stinks of rank political opportunism and deep hypocrisy.’’ The Economist also ridiculed the decision to slate Keyes:
Mr. Keyes’s Senate run will produce nothing but disaster—humiliation for Mr. Keyes, more pie on the face of the already pie-covered Illinois Republican Party, and yet another setback for Republican efforts to woo minority voters. The Keyes candidacy also smacks of tokenism. The candidate routinely denounces affirmative action as a form of racial discrimination.
But what other than racial discrimination can explain the Illinois Republican Party’s decision to shortlist two blacks for the Illinois slot—and eventually to choose Mr. Keyes? He brings no powerful backers or deep pockets and was thrashed in his two runs for the Senate in Maryland. The Illinois Republicans are not just guilty of tokenism. They are guilty of last-minute scraping-the-bottom-of-the-barrel tokenism.
The race issue was transformed into a question of who was ‘‘black enough.’’ Congressman Davis stated, ‘‘He [Obama] understands that the black community is extremely diverse and wooing the black vote is far more complicated than rousing a crowd. The question of whether someone is black enough implies that there is a system of weights and measures that just doesn’t exist. It also implies a construct that allows for one type, or one standard of blackness. And that’s just plain silly.’’
Alan Keyes questioned whether Mr. Obama should claim an African American identity. Keyes remarked, ‘‘Barack Obama and I have the same race—that is, physical characteristics. We are not from the same heritage.… My ancestors toiled in slavery in this country. My consciousness, who I am as a person, has been shaped by my struggle, deeply emotional and deeply painful, with the reality of that heritage.’’ Not surprisingly, Obama held a different view of whether the term African American should refer only to the descendents of slaves and not to recent immigrants who do not share the history of discrimination. ‘‘For me the term African-American really does fit. I’m African, I trace half my heritage to Africa directly, and I’m American.’’ In keeping with Obama’s style of emphasizing commonalities rather than differences, he says black descendents of slaves and black immigrants have a great deal in common, such as fighting poverty and colonialism. Obama’s grandfather worked as a servant in Kenya and was described as a ‘‘house boy’’ by whites even when he was a middle-aged man. Obama said he belonged to the ‘‘community of humanity’’ and that his struggle to define his community included not only race but also geography and class, having friends who were rice-paddy farmers and dignitaries.
Obama has a half-sister who is half Indonesian and is married to a Chinese Canadian. Obama said, ‘‘I am not running a race-based campaign.
I’m rooted in the African American community, but I’m not limited by it.’’
Obama’s ascent to prominence occurred at a time of evolving definitions of race, due in part to immigration. The Census Bureau in 2000 allowed people to identify themselves as ‘‘African American’’ as a subset of the racial category ‘‘black.’’ A 2003 survey reported that 48 percent of blacks preferred the term African American, 35 percent identified 45 with black, and 17 percent liked both terms. During the decade of the l990s, the number of blacks with recent roots in sub-Saharan Africa nearly tripled, and the number of blacks from the Caribbean grew by more than 60 percent. By 2000, foreign-born blacks constituted 30 percent of the blacks in New York City and 28 percent of the blacks in Boston. The demographic shifts, which gained strength in the 1960s after changes in federal immigration law led to increased migration from
Africa and Latin America, have been accompanied in some places by fears that newcomers might eclipse native-born blacks. And they have ‘‘touched off delicate musings about ethnic labels, identity, and the often unspoken differences among people who share the same skin color,’’ noted Rachel Swarns.
Obama and Keyes appealed to different themes that traditionally resonate in African American communities. Obama emphasized chronic policy concerns like jobs, education, and health care. He approached the issues of race by putting them in context of broader themes. He balanced the responsibilities of society at large with the responsibilities of individuals for overcoming racism. Obama thinks education is the most important racial issue facing the country today, providing the foundation to succeed in a global economy. He has derided the anti-intellectual culture that is sometimes heralded in rap music or black families. He has challenged black men to take responsibility for themselves and their families.
Obama commented, ‘‘I also think that people take pride in my academic accomplishments because they know that there are a lot of cultural trends pushing against us. It’s interesting how frequently I have parents come up to me just to say ‘We’re so pleased just to have a black man on TV who’s not a sports star or a rapper.’ And that, by itself, communicates a sense of hope.’’ Obama can speak to the black community in ways that whites cannot.
Keyes stressed the conservative social morals preached in black churches for generations: traditional family values are the cornerstone of society, and abortion and gay marriage are wrong. He thought the Republicans’ views on these issues could lure blacks away from the Democratic Party. Alvin Williams, president and CEO of Black America’s Political
Action Committee, founded by Keyes to promote conservative candidates, explained, ‘‘This campaign … will help bury this monolithic stereo-type that all African Americans think alike.’’ The Peoria Journal Star echoed this theme in an editorial: ‘‘Whoever is elected, this race should shatter the assumption that you can look at a person’s skin color and assume what he believes. Stereotypes are always worth breaking, and no more so than when race is their source.’’ Keyes’s bombastic style and extreme stand on positions led him to make some outlandish comments, however. As discussed in chapter 3, for example, Keyes called Obama’s pro-choice votes the ‘‘slaveholder’s position,’’ for denying unborn children equal rights.
Salim Muwakkil noted that Obama has ‘‘mastered the cultural jargon of the Ivy League’’ and is ‘‘the literal embodiment of our cultural hybridity.’’ Everyone can relate to Obama, or at least a part of him. Bamani Obadele, chairman of the African American Political Organization and a deputy director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, remarked, ‘‘To black people, he’s black. To some whites, they don’t see him as a black man. They see him almost as one of them. Barack Obama is whatever you want him to be.’’
Obama is a racially complex person, which allows him to transcend some cultural constraints. Some pundits argue that this prevents him from being completely at home in any community, but Obama disagrees, claiming to feel comfortable in them all. William Finnegan reported, ‘‘Obama’s ease in front of predominantly white crowds—or, for that matter, all-white crowds—is a source of wonderment in Illinois.
I’ve seen it, and it looks so effortless that it doesn’t seem remarkable.
The sight of big white corn farmers proudly wearing big blue ‘‘Obama’’ buttons and lining up to shake his hand is, I must say, slightly more striking.’’ Obama offered an explanation of his ability to connect with white rural and small-town voters to Mr. Finnegan: ‘‘I know those people. Those are my grandparents. The food they serve is the food my grandparents served when I was growing up. Their manners, their sensibility, their sense of right and wrong—it’s totally familiar to me.’’
Salim Muwakkil, observing the mix of people in a crowd of Obama supporters, noted, ‘‘It wasn’t diversity cobbled together by good intentions.
This was people coming together with shared concerns and hopes—a genuine coalition. Illinois residents of all ethnicities seem to trust that Obama will speak to their specific issues without bias.’’ In an interview with National Public Radio, Obama was asked if he might have a different policy agenda if he were white. He responded:
There are certain instincts that I have that may be stronger because of my experiences as an African American. I don’t think they’re exclusive to African Americans but I think I maybe feel them more acutely. I think I would be very interested in having a civil rights division that is serious about enforcing civil rights. I think that when it comes to an issue like education for example, I feel great pain knowing that there are children in a lot of schools in America who are not getting anything close to the kind of education that will allow them to compete. And I think a lot of candidates, Republicans and Democrats, feel concern for that. But when I know that a lot of those kids look just like my daughters, maybe it’s harder for me to separate myself from their reality. Every time I see those kids, they feel like a part of me.
Barack Obama is a ‘‘post-racial’’ candidate, even though he rejects the concept as representing a ‘‘shortcut to racial reconciliation’’ that ignores the ‘‘long legacy of Jim Crow and slavery.’’ Still, he clearly has been successful in appealing to many white voters as well as to blacks.
Obama remarked, ‘‘I don’t have a lot of patience with identity politics, whether it’s coming from the right or the left.’’ This impatience includes claims of ‘‘colorblindness as a means to deny the structural inequalities’’ in society and those self-appointed arbiters of African American culture who declare who is and who isn’t black enough. Obama argues that his ability to attract widespread support is not due to his race but rather to his ability to make people feel comfortable and to feel that he cares.
‘‘That level of empathy is not a consequence of my DNA. It’s a consequence of my experience,’’ Obama explained.
Today, a number of public officials are part of the Tiger Woods phenomenon. Tiger Woods is a multiracial golf champion, and his background gives him enhanced publicity at country clubs across America.
Colin Powell, whose parents were Jamaican immigrants, is also part of this trend. While General Powell is black, he is not a descendent of American slaves. Benjamin Wallace-Wills observed:
Yet there are a few black politicians for whom their race isn’t a ball-and-chain, but a jet engine—the feature that launches them into stardom. For this small group of black politicians, race has been an advantage because whites see in them confirmation that America, finally, is working. Consequently, all give off the sense that they have transcended traditional racial categories, by signaling in their speech and demeanor, their personal narratives and career achievements, that they fully share in the culture and values of mainstream America; they are able to transcend race through the simple fact of class. Just as importantly, they also transcend ideology by declaring with their rhetoric and policy positions a self-conscious independence from the conventional politics of their parties.
People who fit this description tend to be either products of the military, such as Douglas Wilder and Powell, or were educated at elite universities, such as Harold Ford and Obama. Dealing with the complex intersections of race and ideology is difficult, but Obama shows that it is possible. As Congressman Bobby Rush, a former political rival turned supporter of Obama’s presidential bid, mused in an interview with Newsweek magazine, ‘‘You know, Moses could not have been effective had he not been raised the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. Moses had a relationship inside the palace, he knew the ways and wherefores of the palace.… Barack has that capacity to move in and out of privilege and power.’’
As he entered the Senate, Obama reflected on the exclusive club to which he now belongs, ‘‘When you think of the history of the Senate, what is striking is the degree to which this institution has single-handedly blocked the progress of African Americans for much of our history.
That’s a sad testament to our institution. It’s a stain on the institution. I don’t perceive now that the battles that are going on in the Senate revolve around race as much as they revolve around economics.’’ During his first two years in the Senate, Obama did not generally emphasize racial issues, with the possible exception of his statements in the after-math of Hurricane Katrina, discussed in the next chapter. He also has not played a leading role in the Congressional Black Caucus. It appears that he does not want to be seen as the leader of black America. When he spoke at a Congressional Black Caucus reception recently, the senator graciously thanked several caucus leaders by name and then concluded with a short but telling statement: ‘‘I’m looking forward to working with you on behalf of all Americans.’’