When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial, capping the historic 1963 March on Washington, he was talking about only the most basic rights. “I have a dream,” he thundered, “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’ “
Perhaps only in King’s inner-most, private dreams did he even entertain the possibility of an African-American running for president, let alone being elected. At the time, standing up for voting rights for black people often meant laying your life on the line.
Yet, 45 years later, to the day, Sen. Barack Obama – a black man – is scheduled to accept the Democratic Party nomination for president. The freshman U.S. senator from Illinois boasts a relatively slim résumé for a major-party presidential candidate: before his Senate stint, eight years in the Illinois legislature and three years of community organizing. Where he most obviously differs from his predecessors, though, is his skin color, the result of having a black Kenyan father and white Kansan mother.
“A lot of black folks, myself included, occasionally pinch ourselves to see if this is really real,” says James Rucker of San Francisco, co-founder of ColorOfChange.org, a Web-based network that aims to boost the political presence of African-Americans.
Perhaps adding to the dreamlike quality of the moment, Obama’s almost-certain Republican opponent, four-term Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a white, 71-year-old war hero – is running slightly behind in some polls. But even if McCain later moves to the lead, Obama, 46, already has upset expectations rooted in America’s complicated and violent racial history.
Obama’s strong showing may be as much generational as racial. “We have more racially conservative people being replaced by younger people coming into adulthood who are much more comfortable with the racial and ethnic diversity that characterizes the country today,” says Scott Keeter, director of survey research for the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
Even so, most recent poll results still show a close race. In June, a Washington Post-ABC News survey showed Obama with 48 percent support, against 42 percent for McCain. Estimates of electoral votes showed McCain ahead, but by only six votes.
Arguably, Obama should be leaving McCain in the dust. A Republican affiliation is a ticket to the political graveyard these days, as any number of GOP politicians are saying. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich sees a “catastrophic collapse in trust for Republicans.” Yet Obama and McCain are in “a very competitive race for president,” Democratic pollster Peter Hart told The Wall Street Journal.
Is Obama’s race – as opposed to his relative inexperience or his policy proposals or his personality – holding his numbers down?
A national poll in early July found that Americans disagree on some – but not all – race-related issues. Twenty-nine percent of blacks thought race relations in the U.S. were generally good compared to 55 percent of whites. Yet 70 percent of whites and 65 percent of blacks thought America is ready to elect a black president. As to the candidates themselves, 83 percent of black voters had favorable opinions of Obama compared with 31 percent of whites. And only 5 percent of blacks had favorable opinions of McCain vs. 35 percent of whites.
Obama supporters and the candidate himself are predicting that Republicans inevitably will resort to race. “They’re going to try to make you afraid of me. ‘He’s young and inexperienced and he’s got a funny name. And did I mention he’s black?’ “ Obama told a fundraiser in Jacksonville, Fla., in late June.
Republican officials and activists reject the notion that race will be the deciding issue. “I don’t believe this presidential election is going to be determined by the race of the candidates,” says Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican frequently mentioned as a potential vice-presidential running mate for McCain.
Republicans predict, however, that Obama’s camp will treat legitimate political challenges as racial attacks. “Every word will be twisted to make it about race,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a McCain friend and adviser. But GOP attacks on Obama on issues such as national security and the economy, he said, will have “nothing to do with him being an African-American.”
Still, no one disputes that race inevitably will affect the election. Race has been intertwined with American history even before nationhood, and racial issues have figured in virtually all past presidential elections for the past half-century – before a major party had a black candidate.
In the politically crucial South – a Republican bastion since 1980 – most white and black voters (when blacks could even register) have always joined opposed parties. When the Democratic Party carried the banner of segregation, blacks tended to be Republicans. After the Democrats aligned themselves with the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the races switched parties.
“The majority [of Southerners] define themselves as conservative,” says political scientist Merle Black, a specialist in Southern politics at Emory University in Atlanta. “White moderates have tended to be more Republican than Democratic; that isolates the Democrats with white liberals and African-Americans, who are not a majority in any Southern state.”
Democrats Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 each failed to win a single Southern state. But some experts give Obama a strong chance in Virginia – and outside possibilities in North Carolina and Florida. As if to underline the point, Obama opened his post-primary campaign in Virginia on June 5.
Obama’s bold move exemplified the approach that has taken him further than any African-American politician in U.S. history.
Indeed, Shelby Steele, a conservative writer of black and white parentage, is disavowing the last part of the subtitle of his recent book, A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win. Steele, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., says: “I underestimated the hunger in America for what Obama represents – racial transcendence, redemption. He’s this wonderful opportunity to prove that we’re not a racist society. I thought that would take him a very long way, but I didn’t think it would take him all the way, but it may.”
However strong that hunger may be, it’s not universal. Hard-core race prejudice remains a factor in American life. If Obama wins, “We’ll end up slaves. We’ll be made slaves just like they was once slaves,” Johnny Telvor of Williamson, W. Va., told The Observer, a British newspaper. And Victoria Spitzer, an Obama campaign volunteer from Pennsylvania, told The Washington Post of even uglier comments. “Hang that darky from a tree,” she said she was told once as she made phone calls to dozens of prospective primary voters.
Obama argues that the country is indeed ready to rise above America’s centuries-old racial divide. “In the history of African-American politics in this country there has always been some tension between speaking in universal terms and speaking in very race-specific terms about the plight of the African-American community,” Obama said during a National Public Radio interview in 2007. “By virtue of my background, you know, I am more likely to speak in universal terms.”
“Universal” now describes a far more diverse population than the white-majority/black-minority paradigm that prevailed only a few decades ago.
The U.S. Census Bureau calculates the nation’s entire minority population – of whom Latinos make up the biggest single component – at 34 percent. “In a single lifetime, we will have gone from a country made up largely of white Europeans to one that looks much more like the rest of the world,” writes Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN (formerly New Democratic Network), a liberal think tank and advocacy organization.
Still, old-school racial issues persist. The “post-racial” aura of Obama’s candidacy suffered some erosion after a video clip surfaced in March of a fiery black nationalist sermon by Obama’s pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, ending with the unforgettable: “God damn America.”
After cable news channels put the clip in round-the-clock rotation, Obama disassociated himself from Wright’s remarks. When that didn’t calm the waters, the Indonesia- and Hawaii-bred candidate gave a major speech on March 18 in Philadelphia, in which he confronted suggestions that his childhood outside the continental United States, and his Ivy League education had sheltered him from the U.S racial drama: “I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy – particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.”
The primary contest was winding to a close. Inevitably, the Wright affair and its aftermath permeated news coverage of the final elections.
In a Newsweek poll in May, 21 percent of white registered voters said they didn’t think America was ready to elect an African-American president, and 18 percent of non-whites agreed. But pollsters also tried gauging the extent of prejudice, asking white voters only if “we have gone too far in pushing equal rights in this country.” Thirty-nine percent said yes.
And in Democratic primary elections in the politically critical states of Ohio and Pennsylvania, as well as in West Virginia and Kentucky, exit polls showed that Obama faced clear resistance among white voters with no more than high-school educations – the standard definition of “working class.”
But a Roanoke, Va.-based political consultant who specializes in rural voters argues that Obama’s race is a deal-breaker only with a small minority of voters in the Appalachian region that includes Pennsylvania, Ohio and Virginia. “There’s one thing that could kill him – his gun record,” says David “Mudcat” Saunders. “He’s got to come to Jesus on guns. You start taking peoples’ handguns, which is how the National Rifle Association right now is defining him – if he gets branded with that, he’s done.”
Obama may have weakened his case with rural gun owners with his widely reported comments at a San Francisco fundraising event shortly before the Pennsylvania primary. “You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years, and nothing’s replaced them,” he told prospective donors. “Each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate, and they have not. So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
To Obama’s foes, the comments confirmed their depiction of him as an arrogant and condescending Ivy Leaguer – someone who aroused class-based suspicion more than racial hostility.
Whether Obama, who grew up fatherless and whose family at one point relied on food stamps, fits the standard definition of “elite” is one question. Another, say some scholars, is whether depictions of negative personal reactions to Obama as working-class pride are a cover. “I don’t buy the argument that the racial argument is just a class discussion,” says Paula McClain, a specialist in racial politics at Duke University. “For blacks, it doesn’t matter how high you get. Millions of middle-class blacks still experience slights.”
Obama lost Pennsylvania. But a Washington Post reporter traveling through its small towns found voters who agreed with Obama’s basic assessment, if not with his wording. “People are sort of bitter, but they’re not carrying around guns and causing crimes like he specified,” said retired factory worker George Guzzi. “Everyone makes mistakes.” Guzzi plans to vote for Obama.
American voters may be more nuanced in their judgments than some pundits think they are. And Obama’s influence is undeniable. “No one up until this point has been able to change the dynamics like he has,” says Hanes Walton Jr., a political scientist at the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan. “Some people would call it a sea change.”
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