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Perspectives: Obama Can’t Use Race as a Positive Campaign Note

That finally we have a presidential candidate — Barack Obama — who speaks in full sentences and thoughtfully enlarged paragraphs, immediately puts him at odds with the sound-bite-fed media. It is not uncommon to be in a crowd and hear people discussing game shows, soap operas, sports and post-eighties comic books. So when a serious presidential candidate speaks to us like adults, it is indeed refreshing, hopeful and revolutionary.

Think about this for a moment — the possibility of electing a president who is contemplative, well read, and writes his own books. Yes, change is possible when it starts with a proponent of such. We understand that ideas and the creators and carriers of ideas are very powerful in this culture. Also, it takes more than 30 seconds to talk intelligently about and consider the many formulations on education, the economy, healthcare, national security and, of course, the ever present elephant in the room — race.

On the issue of race, Obama tried, and to the degree that people listen, really listen, he succeeded. His address to the nation was a masterful piece of writing and delivery. In my opinion, he has earned and deserves enormous respect from the public — voters and non-voters alike.

This speech, delivered at a critical time in this primary campaign season, was perceivably given as a vehicle for Obama to respond to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy. In an effort to distance himself from the rhetoric, but not alienate himself from the man, Obama moved the conversation from attack on religious doctrine to a conversation on embracing differences. However, we are now entering the hot wilderness, because there are some who will not let Rev. Wright retire in peace.


The wolves are coming out and protection for Obama or Wright is little. The Left will fold and retreat. The Right smells blood and will escalate their attacks. Many members of the Black community will dance in self-haltered confusion of “what could have been” and break out in a chorus of “I told you so.”

But it’s not too late. Even though Bill and Hillary Clinton have let loose a storm of hate, mis-messages, and entitlement rage there is something missing in all of this, not totally Shakespearian, more Wilsonian as in August. Young people are thinking and acting in ways that their parents and politicized media did not expect. The keys to this election are independents and young people.

This is the first decade of a new century and millennium. Hopefully, the young and others will see through the lies, innuendoes and real fairy tales of opportunist hit men and women. It is certain that the Republicans were able to capture the White House in the last two elections because of the unspoken fact that they wrote the books on dirty politics. Just as they “swift boated” John Kerry in 2004, they — the Republicans and the Clintons — are going to use an out-of-context Jeremiah Wright sound bite and try to race-boat Obama.

The major racial and cultural divide in America is one of omnipresent ignorance. Too often it’s the powerful that defines the powerless — Blacks, Latinos, Americans Indians, Asians and most recently Arabs — with its 24-hour news that’s neither fair nor balanced to those it covers. For the majority of Blacks, Rev. Wright is not Obama’s problem. It can be easily documented that Wright has spent his adult life in the forefront of working in the tradition of a respectable, cultural and social gospel that the Black church stands upon, even before “Black liberation theology” emerged in the ’60s. His ministry has always been progressive (South Africa, gay rights, women in the ministry, etc.) before it was popular or safe. He is a serious student of history and understands as is documented by Charles W. Mills in his book, The Racial Contract, that “White supremacy is the unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today.”

Obama is not running to become president of Black America, nor is he running as an African-American in the tradition of the Revs. Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. Unlike Hillary Clinton who can use the historical possibilities of becoming the first woman president as a positive campaign note, Obama can’t use his “first” in a racially polarized nation.

He cannot highlight the possibility of becoming the first Black president without seeming too Black or defined as a president just for Black people. The first woman is acceptable as a universal achievement and is to be applauded. The first Black is seen as too limited and ghettoized. The recently published Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon reinforces the case that the post-slavery exploitations of Blacks and the continued racial subjugation has not brought the races closer together.

Much work still needs to be undertaken on the critical issue of race in America. Whether Barack Obama is Black enough or White enough should not be the question. The questions to ask are whether he is intelligent, whether he is a man of integrity with a historical knowledge of America and the world, and whether he is psychologically and physiologically equipped to make good decisions and to handle the rigor and demands of our country’s highest office?   

Haki R Madhubuti is a poet, founder and publisher of Third World Press, and  University Distinguished Professor and Director of the MFA program at Chicago State University. His latest book is YellowBlack: The First Twenty-One Years of a Poet’s Life.

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