Jewish World Review Sept. 29, 2004 / 14 Tishrei 5765

Alvin Williams

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Keyes and Obama: Opening doors and opening minds | In the midst of the media tumult regarding the Senate race between Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama and Dr. Alan Keyes, the historic ramifications of their contest has seemingly been ignored.

The race between Keyes and Obama marks the first time that two blacks have faced off in an election for the U.S. Senate, with the winner set to become only the fifth black elected to the Senate. But beyond the historic ramifications of their participation in this election, there is a much more profound statement that this campaign will make that speaks to a more contemporary political reality among blacks. The Keyes-Obama race debunks the myth that black political thought and philosophy is monolithic - a myth that has shaped the parties' approach to blacks for decades.

Regardless of the opinions held about the political philosophies of either candidate, all must agree that there is a diversity of opinion that exists between Keyes and Obama. Political pundits and others have cited these diametric differences, however their citations seek to marginalize the political philosophy of Keyes and portray him as an ultra-conservative who seeks to stand in the way of someone whose message resonates among all blacks in Illinois. Such a portrayal is an example of the political climate that the Keyes-Obama race exists within and in November seeks to change - regardless of the final outcome.

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It is the prevailing view in this country that blacks are liberal Democrats who couldn't possibly subscribe to any ideals or political perspectives that are conservative or linked to conservative voices. This short-sighted perspective is a distant cousin to the perspectives that at one time did not take into account the diversity that existed among blacks and subjecting all blacks to derogatory stereotypes.

This perspective was evident in statements such as "they all look alike" or other such statements.

Granted, a quick look at our recent voting patterns may suggest that there is an affinity among blacks and the ideals of the Democratic Party, which would be used to support the theory that Keyes' perspective does not reflect that of other blacks. However, this is not the opinion of most black registered voters and simply reflects the cyclical voting pattern that has been prevalent throughout our voting history.

In polls conducted by Black America's Political Action Committee, black registered voters have shown support for ideas that are tabbed as conservative. Blacks are vehemently opposed to partial-birth abortions and the legalization of same-sex marriages and the comparison of the gay rights movement to the civil rights movement. Conversely among blacks, there is support for so-called conservative measures such charter schools, restrictions of the availability of music with explicit lyrics to minors, and the option of investing a part of Social Security benefits. Furthermore, while most blacks consider themselves political moderates, according to the poll, the next largest identity group is conservatives.

Another sign of change is the growing frustration among blacks toward the Democratic Party. In BAMPAC's most recent poll conducted this summer, a majority of black registered voters felt that the Democratic Party has taken them for granted. Simultaneously, there has been a growth among younger black voters identifying as independents.

When considering these facts, the Keyes-Obama Senate race should be viewed in a different context than it is being portrayed by the media and other so-called experts. It is not, as the media and others suggest, a race between a candidate who reflects black public opinion and a conservative outsider.

This campaign is a historic race between two black candidates whose diversity of opinion and political perspective mirrors the diversity of opinion and political perspective that exists among blacks. When they take the stage in their series of debates, what America will hear is the diversity of political perspective among blacks that is similar to the diversity of political opinion that exists among all Americans and is the cornerstone of our democracy.

The historic ramifications of the Keyes-Obama race should not be limited to the mention of the victor on Nov. 2. Rather, this race can and should be viewed as a turning point in how America views the participation of blacks in our democracy.

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Alvin Williams is president and CEO of Black America's Political Action Committee. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2004, Black America's Political Action Committee Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services