Obama and Race
In the Spotlight
Barack Obama has generally avoided explicit speculation about the history that would be made were he to become the nation's first African-American president. But he gestured at the broader implications of his campaign more directly than usual in responding to a question on Friday at the Urban League's annual convention, in St. Louis, about how he would improve race relations in the country. In response, Obama raised his right hand, as if taking the oath of office, and said: "The day a minority becomes president, the country looks at itself differently."
Obama's remarks went over well among the mostly African-American crowd, which also heard speeches from Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich. What remains to be seen, though, is how directly Obama will seek to invoke the transformative potential of his candidacy, whatever the audience. In an article Saturday addressing the appeal, and challenges, of politicians in Obama's general mold -- youthful African-Americans with elite credentials and a conciliatory message of hope and idealism -- the Post quoted a Democratic strategist in Boston who noted that Obama, like Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, may not need to mention his history-making potential outright when addressing white voters: "When I was advising Deval, I told him: You don't have to say you're different. When you walk into the room, they know you're different," said the strategist, Dan Payne. "It's the same with Obama -- he doesn't have to stress that he's a unique figure. He just is. In the way he speaks and handles himself, he can be a little edgy and a little reassuring at the same time."
Meanwhile, it's clear that Obama still has a ways to go before nailing down a majority of the black vote in key Democratic primary states like South Carolina. Black voters not only feel deep loyalty to Clinton, but some also doubt whether a fellow African American really has a chance at the White House.
The Associated Press quotes Ashley Torrence, a 27-year-old college instructor in Greenville, S.C., who is torn between voting for Obama and Clinton: "I wanted to ask him how he had planned to combat the feeling that unfortunately a lot of people have about just not being ready for a black male to be president and particularly a lot of people with old South mentality," she said. "How is he going to deal with that? Because you can't campaign as though it doesn't exist."
One thing to keep an eye on in the coming months are some high-profile black political figures who have yet to decide whom to endorse. Activist Al Sharpton has toned down his biting criticism of Obama from earlier in the year, when he accused Obama of taking black support for granted and not paying enough attention to urban issues, but he also continues to offer praise for both Clinton and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is toying with running as an independent. Meanwhile, Patrick has yet to decide whom to endorse, caught as he is between Obama, whose message so resembles his own, and Clinton, whose husband hired him as an assistant U.S. attorney general. One thing's for sure, Patrick said late last week: he won't duck the issue. The 2008 race is "so important," he said, that he feels oblige to throw his support behind a candidate, most likely "a little later in the year."
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