Monday, February 19, 2007

Obama should not get a free pass from Black America

Having already suggested in print that Barack Obama should run for president of the United States, let me now address the important issue of race that has surfaced, now that he has announced his intent to put together an exploratory committee.

Barack Obama has earned considerable public notice, not for anything he has done, but substantially for who he is racially. Thus, who he is, becomes a central point in examining his popularity, because this is part of the reason why the American people have gravitated toward him. His public posture is that he is attractive personally, being even charismatic and telegenic, but he has also tentatively laid out some tantalizing aspects of his ideological position. He has said that he understands that Americans want a “new kind of leadership” but without quite defining it. Is this his way of suggesting that he is a post-racial candidate?

His novelty has meant that he presents a view of racial diversity that is attractive to Americans, the non-threatening variety. One variety of diversity comes with a compensatory edge, where Blacks are demanding compensation for the past of slavery and post-slavery racism has been rejected by the Supreme Court, by the states of California, Washington, and more recently Michigan. There is another kind of diversity that is based on the simple proposition of the positive desire to include all people of whatever stripe in the American experiment. The latter is where Barack Obama wins his appeal from America. This is suggested by his parental background and his upbringing and now become an out-front aspect of his persona.

Black people do not live in a post-racial America. They live in the prism of police shootings in New York, Atlanta, of rabid incarceration, of employment stagnation, of the continued lack of capital, of record foreclosures, and other manifestations that America is still sensitive to who they are. So, why shouldn’t Blacks, even Black leaders, be a little suspicious of the maddening rush to Obama by the media, when at the same time, they turn Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy into a non-threatening pose of the dreamer? The media vilifies King’s followers who carry on his true legacy.

Some have suggested that Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton, Harry Belafonte are jealous of Obama because they believe that he cannot be just accepted at face value and should be watched. But it is the responsibility of Black leadership to vet anyone who presents himself or herself to the Black community as a presidential candidate. Ask Senator Joe Lieberman. In the 2000 election cycle, he was added to the ticket of Al Gore as vice president. However, he had taken a negative position on affirmative action and Black leaders took him to the woodshed until he straightened up.

Black leaders also have another reason to be cautious. They have some attractive options and these options should be played effectively. If Rev. Sharpton runs for president in 2008, Blacks will have a direct and powerful voice in the presidential election representing issues important to Blacks that cannot be ignored. Already, one un-named analysts reported in a major newspaper that Barack faces the danger that a Sharpton candidacy will force him to address “awkward civil rights issues such as police brutality and racial profiling that he tends to steer clear of.”

Another candidate, Hilary is married to Bill Clinton, an 800-pound gorilla is affectionately called the “first Black President.” He has retained a lasting influence within the Black community, his former staffers and their extended contacts. Given these real live options, why jump to the untested Barack?

(Guest editorial by Ron Walters, the Distinguished Leadership Scholar, Director of the African American Institute and Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland - College Park. He can be reached at )

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