Barack Obama’s March 18 speech in Philadelphia on race was inevitable. Try as he might, there was no way he could complete his presidential bid without facing the beast at some point. After video of controversial comments by his longtime Chicago pastor, Jeremiah Wright, were repeated ad nauseam by almost every major media outlet, Obama was forced into an almost impossible damage control balancing act.
He had to distance himself from Wright’s words without “rejecting and denouncing” his minister, as he did Louis Farrakhan in Ohio weeks earlier. He couldn’t completely and unapologetically pull Wright to his bosom, because many in white America wouldn’t accept it. Neither could he simply throw his pastor and mentor under the bus, because highly religious black America would then label him a political opportunist and turncoat.
All things considered, Obama did a masterful job with the Philadelphia speech. Of course, his campaign quickly announced that he would immediately move back to mainstream campaign issues like Iraq and healthcare the very next day. Race would be put back in its closet. The reality, however, is that even though Obama dreads addressing it, his improbable presidential odyssey itself forces us to face racial issues to one degree or another.
I must admit, Obama’s success has surprised me — and it’s making me ask hard questions of myself. At the beginning of the race, I didn’t think Obama had a chance. I really believed racism was so deeply embedded in the American psyche that a black presidential candidate just couldn’t get enough support from a high enough percentage of whites to make him viable. Sure, they would say Obama was great and had their support, but when that voting booth curtain closed, they would never punch the ticket for an African American. To this point, I have been wrong.
The reality is that Obama has incredible support across lines of race. There are a few theories on this. One is that some grand conspiracy is in play (supposedly from the right) to deliver an unelectable Democrat to the general election, thereby clearing the way for another Republican presidency. Of course, this theory only works in states with open primaries. I don’t know if I buy this one.
The second possibility is more disturbing (and comforting) for me. Could it be that Obama’s success proves that America’s racial divide really isn’t as wide as I’ve believed? Could it be that race really doesn’t matter that much anymore and we really have reached the “content of our character” moment in history? This is disturbing, because I will have to change my worldview on race if it’s true. It’s comforting for the same reason. If true, this is very cool.
Yes, I know Obama is safe. I know his politics are more racially bland than rice cakes. I know he’s no Adam Clayton Powell Jr. or John Lewis. I definitely believe expectations of him are radically overblown. But, he’s still black. By my paradigm, his politics wouldn’t matter — a large number of whites simply wouldn’t vote for him just because he was black.
Let’s face it — Obama is going to win the Democratic nomination. The only way he loses this thing is if somebody comes up with evidence that he was hanging out with Eliot Spitzer and his Emperor’s Club visitors or Monica Lewinsky is seen scurrying off Obama’s campaign plane at 3 a.m. and produces another DNA-marked dress. Barring that, the self-proclaimed “skinny guy with the funny name” will move on to face John McCain.
So, what does all this mean? Sure, there will always be racist lemmings lurking in the sewers and shadows. But, does this widespread multi-racial support of Obama signal the virtual end of blanket negative racial categorization in America? Does it prove that, for the most part, structural racism and national racial animus is all but dead?
I am not asking these questions sarcastically. I’m serious. Could it be that many of the ideas I’ve held about race and our necessary national struggle to address it have been (or, at least, are) misplaced? Readers, I don’t usually ask for comments, but I really want your opinions on this one. Does Barack Obama’s success prove racism is dead? Let LEO and me know what you think.
Remember, until next time — have no fear, stay strong, stand on truth, do justice and do not leave the people in the hands of fools.
Contact the writer at