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Senator, you better walk before you run

Published October 29, 2006


Barack Obama's complex, overnight rise to national prominence has everything to do with race. Those who deny his skin color matters are either naive or duplicitous.

The nation was introduced to Obama in July 2004, when he delivered a rousing prime-time speech at the Democratic National Convention.

During this age of ethnic, political, religious and transnational turmoil, many disaffected voters want to believe that the fresh-faced Obama is an all-American elixir.

In his new book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, the junior Illinois senator - only the third black person to serve in the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction - meticulously portrays himself as the incorruptible, wholesome politician who puts the common good above divisiveness.

He comes off as the kind of black person many white people, even some moderate Southern Republicans, could vote for in the 2008 presidential race. He also portrays himself as a black man many black people, even old-school civil rights professionals, can support at the ballot box.

The Obama phenomenon is not new. Like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, most notably, Obama has been deemed an honorary white person. In other words, a large number of important white people, with the senator nodding and smiling, have decided that he transcends race. He is that rare black politician who is not seen as a "black leader," a mostly contemptible designation heaped upon the likes of the reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam.

Obama does not discomfit white people. He knows that black politicians who do so commit suicide if they run for national office.

Here, from Audacity, is an example of Obama's appeal to white people, as he sums up lessons learned on the campaign trail: "Not only did my encounters with voters confirm the fundamental decency of the American people, they also reminded me that at the core of the American experience are a set of ideals that continue to stir our collective conscience; a common set of values that bind us together despite our differences; a running thread of hope that makes our improbable experiment in democracy work. These values and ideals find expression not just in marble slabs of monuments or in the recitation of history books. They remain alive in the hearts and minds of most Americans - and can inspire us to pride, duty, and sacrifice."

Soothing words, these. Most white people will not acknowledge that they long for a "good black" to emerge on the national political stage. Why do they wish for such a person? Just as the black scapegoat - George H.W. Bush's Willie Horton during the 1988 presidential campaign - gives white people a means to cast society's sins on to a demonic object, Obama's presence gives catharsis. He lets whites feel like decent Americans who are not race conscious.

Reassuring blacks

How, then, do honorary whites reassure blacks while soothing whites?

In an Ebony magazine interview several years ago, Colin Powell acknowledged that he was extraordinarily successful, in part, because he did not look black, did not sound black and did not act black. He came right out and said that he makes whites feel comfortable.

In the same kind of confessional, Obama writes that "my own upbringing hardly typifies the African American experience" and that "largely through luck and circumstance, I now occupy a position that insulates me from most of the bumps and bruises that the average black man must endure."

Obama knows that as an honorary white man, a Columbia University-trained attorney and a former University of Chicago law professor, he needs to reassure ordinary blacks that he at least vicariously understands the experience of racism's perpetual limitations, hurt and indignity.

To that end, he writes: "I am a prisoner of my own biography: I can't help but view the American experience through the lens of a black man of mixed heritage, forever mindful of how generations of people who looked like me were subjugated and stigmatized, and the subtle and not so subtle ways that race and class continue to shape our lives."

A few sentences later, however, he warns his fellow blacks of falling victim to the cynicism and hopelessness that racism can engender.

Facing harsh reality

If Obama - with a mere two years in the Senate - chooses to run for the White House and balances the tightrope between whites and blacks, the toughest challenges still will lie ahead for him, and he will need to prove that he is more than a best-selling author and a gifted speaker.

He will need to prove that he is a realistic leader. How can this untested 45-year-old handle the corrosive nastiness that has taken over American politics, while he argues, for example, that the nation is not divided into red and blue states, that pundits invented these ideological geographies as shorthand?

Has he not heard that voters in the Old Confederacy really do hold distinct views on gay rights, abortion, immigration, domestic spying and race? Did he miss the news that conservatives and liberals really do despise one another? Surely, he knows that Dixieland has white Southern Baptists and black Baptists and white Masonic lodges and black Masonic lodges.

On the other major front, how would he handle the New World Disorder - Iran, Iraq and North Korea?

Youthful optimism is admirable, but reality on the ground is a vicious, unforgiving tyrant.

Obama needs more than one Senate term to qualify for the presidency of the United States. Our domestic affairs are too confused, and the world is too complex and dangerous for this likable, charismatic, African-American neophyte to practice on-the-job training.

We are into the sixth year of OJT in the Oval Office -with disastrous results. Let us not do it again.


Times staff writer Waveney Ann Moore pondered the term "African-American" when Obama gave his famous keynote address.  Read the story: America's label game misses diversity of race.

[Last modified October 29, 2006, 10:13:54]

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