Is Barack black enough? Now that's a silly question
Sen. Barack Obama's presidential quest has launched some revealing conversations, particularly about what makes a black person "black."
Even for those who think as I do that the answer is breathtakingly obvious, the question is not frivolous. For Obama, the son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, the emerging media narrative invites a re-examination of widely held assumptions. Is race a matter of color? Ancestry? Or experiences?
"There are African-Americans who don't think that you're black enough, who don't think that you have had the required experience," reporter Steve Kroft asked Obama as they cruised Chicago's South Side during a recent 60 Minutes profile.
"The truth of the matter is," Obama mused, gazing at the neighborhoods outside their vehicle's windows, "when I'm walking down the south side of Chicago and visiting my barbershop and playing basketball in some of these neighborhoods, those aren't questions I get asked."
No, those are the kind of questions some people ask about you when you're the first black presidential candidate to have a viable chance of winning.
"I also notice when I'm catching a cab," he quipped. "Nobody's confused about that, either."
That was a significant line, even if nobody really believes that the superstar freshman senator from Illinois would have much trouble hailing any taxi he wants these days. In our racially complicated society, you're not just the race — or races — that you say you are. You're also the race other people say you are.
Yet, the big question for past black presidential candidates has been whether they could get white votes. For Obama, the emerging question has been whether he can attract black votes, especially compared to front-runner Hillary Clinton.
In Washington Post/ABC News polls in December and January, 60 percent of black voters said they would vote for the New York senator and former first lady compared with 40 percent for Obama. That surprised many people, who apparently expect all black voters to think alike.
The fact is, black voters can be just as discerning and skeptical about political candidates that they do not know well. Polls also have shown that about half of voters overall, including blacks, say they don't know enough about Obama to have an opinion about him.
Obama, like the rest of the Democratic field, knows that he enjoys a lot of good will that Sen. Clinton and her ex-president husband have built up among black voters, politicians and Democratic operatives over the years. Some have made early endorsements of Clinton, even if they do not dislike Obama.
One black Clinton supporter, South Carolina state Sen. Robert Ford, went so far as to say that a black candidate at the top of the ticket could bring down the Democratic party and even lose its recently won congressional majority. When other black Democrats repudiated his remarks, Ford apologized and said he would support whoever wins the nomination. Welcome to the big leagues, senator.
Blacks worried about whether Obama is "black enough" might be reassured by the grumblings of others who think he's too black.
Obama quite sensibly observed in his 60 Minutes interview that he did not "decide" to be black. "If you look African-American in this society, you're treated as an African-American," he said, "and when you're a child, in particular, that is how you begin to identify yourself."
That response rankled talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh, who apparently thinks race is something we can put on or take off like a suit. If Obama did not "decide" his race, Limbaugh declared, "Well, renounce it, then. If it's not something you want to be, if you didn't decide it, renounce it, become white!" Ah, if only it was that easy, el Rushbo.
Moving up fast in that silliness derby, syndicated talk-radio host Glenn Beck declared Obama to be "colorless." "As a white guy," Beck said, " ... you don't notice that he is black. So he might as well be white, you know what I mean?" Beck added that he'll probably be called a "racist" by some bloggers for saying that. He hopes. It might help his ratings.
Whether Obama had the "black American experience" before, he certainly appears to be getting it now. Part of that experience is to hear other people argue over what you should call yourself. In fact, if you don't have the right to call yourself what you want, you don't have much freedom at all.
Besides, if you look back far enough, we're all "mixed."
Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist specializing in urban issues. He is based in Washington, D.C. (email@example.com)
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