I wasn't there, but I'm guessing that Sen. Barack Obama winced uncomfortably over at least one of comedian Chris Rock's jokes at a fundraiser for Obama in Harlem's historic Apollo Theater last week. Rock quipped that his mostly black audience would be "real embarrassed" if Obama won after they had supported New York Sen. Hillary Clinton.
"You'd say, 'I had that white lady! What was I thinking?' " he said, according to the Associated Press.
That line might well have passed without much notice, had it come amid the usual raunchy fare on late-night cable TV. But race is a particularly sensitive topic in the world of politics. Expect Obama, as we journalists like to say, to "distance himself" from the remarks.
After all, the biracial Obama has made inoffensiveness and outreach across racial, ethnic and ideological lines a signature theme of his presidential campaign, even when his effort has brought a stronger outpouring of support from whites than he has received from blacks.
For example, his Harlem fundraiser came during a week of dueling endorsements with frontrunner Clinton. Clinton won the support of a group of black ministers in South Carolina. Oprah Winfrey announced she would campaign for Obama. One national poll had him trailing Clinton among black voters nationwide. A poll in pivotal South Carolina, where blacks make up about half of the Democratic primary voters, Obama was closing his gap into a neck-and-neck statistical tie.
Over Thanksgiving dinner and elsewhere, I have heard a lot of reasons from my own little focus group of black voters as to why the race for black votes gave an early edge to Clinton over Obama. A lot of black folks have serious doubts that America will elect a black president. Black voters naturally have turned to a candidate whom they already like, Clinton, even if some of them like her husband better than they like her.
Challenges to his "blackness" are not a new problem for Obama. Chicago Tribune reporter David Mendell recounts in his biography, "Obama: From Promise to Power," how Obama first ran head-on into the issue of whether he was "black enough" in 2000. That was when he unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Bobby Rush, the popular Chicago Democrat and former Black Panther leader. If your "blackness" is a campaign issue, it's hard to beat a former Black Panther leader.
Nevertheless, Obama refused to allow his crossover dreams to be dimmed by the racial hang-ups of others, he told Mendell. "What I've found," he said, "is they are usually going through identity issues themselves and they project those issues onto me."
That line came to mind as I read Hoover Institute scholar Shelby Steele's new book-length essay, "A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win."
Whether the Illinois Democrat realizes it or not, he is trapped in the "double bind" of race in America, Steele writes. He argues that Obama is "a bound man who cannot serve the aspirations of one race without betraying those of the other."
I think Steele is being too hard on Obama and the process of politics within which the senator is trying to operate. Steele tries to fit Obama into the models that the author described in his breakthrough 1991 book of essays, "The Content of Our Character." You either have to be a "challenger" like the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, in Steele's view, or a "bargainer" who makes a deal with the white world to refrain from making whites feel guilty in exchange for their cooperation.
I think Obama is trying to play a different role, that of a cultural bridge-builder. He's trying to challenge the soul-crushing system that Steele decries. Most Americans do seem to want more national unity in our politics after years of polarization. But Obama can't pull that off overnight. At least he has begun the process.
And, it is worth noting, there are still some folks out there who think Obama is "too black" for their tastes. As a white South Carolina man told CBS News correspondent Dean Reynolds in last week, "I don't want to sound prejudiced or anything, but for one, I am not going to vote for a colored man to be our president." Well, friend, I hate to break it to you, but you do sound prejudiced.
Somehow I doubt that Obama would have gotten his vote anyway.
Nevertheless, Obama has good reason to wince when his supporters sound a note of racial bias, even in jest. He has even more reason to wince when those who oppose him express their racism in complete seriousness.