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Jewish World Review
Feb. 11, 2008
/ 5 Adar I 5768
The irrelevance of Obama's color
On the subject of Black History Month, I'm with Morgan Freeman, who described
it a few years ago as "ridiculous" for the excellent reason that "black
history is American history," not some segregated addendum to it. The only way
to get beyond racial divisions, he told Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes," is to
"stop talking about it. I'm going to stop calling you a white man, and I'm
going to ask you to stop calling me a black man."
Amen to that. The sooner we resolve to abandon the labels "black" and "white,"
the sooner we will be a society in which such racial labels are irrelevant. And
what better moment to make such a resolution than this one, when white
Americans by the millions are proving that the color of a person's skin is no
longer a bar to anything in this country not even the presidency.
Whether or not Barack Obama's bid for the White House ultimately succeeds, it
has already demolished the canard that America will not elect a black
president. His impressive win over Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucuses could
perhaps be dismissed as a fluke, but after Super Tuesday there is not much left
to argue about. Obama carried 13 states last week, and the whiter the state,
the more imposing his victory.
He took Utah with 57 percent of the vote. North Dakota with 61 percent. Kansas:
74 percent. Alaska: 75 percent. Idaho, that supposed redoubt of militant white
supremacists, chose Obama over Clinton by 80 to 17 percent.
Far from being a strike against him, Obama's color is manifestly a political
advantage. Not only because black voters will vote for him with enthusiasm, but
because tens of millions of white voters will, too. Countless Americans plainly
relish the chance to prove with their vote that they are not tainted by racial
bigotry. "I confess that I plan to be moved to tears," Leon Wieseltier, the
literary editor of The New Republic, has written, "on the day that I vote for a
black man for the presidency of this stained and stirring country."
It isn't only liberals and Democrats who find Obama attractive. Among his
supporters is Jeffrey Hart, a former speechwriter for Richard Nixon and Ronald
Reagan. Peter Wehner, a former assistant to President Bush, writes in The
Washington Post that Obama is "an appealing figure to many Republicans,"
because, among other things, his campaign is not based on racial grievance. He
cites MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, a one-time GOP congressman, who has been flooded
with mail from Republicans praising Obama's speeches. "Obama, more than any
figure in America," Wehner suggests, "can help bind up the racial wounds of
Obama is infinitely preferable to previous black candidates like Jesse Jackson
and Al Sharpton, professional racial activists whose stock in trade is the
exploitation of black victimology and white guilt. As the first black
presidential hopeful with a realistic chance of winning the White House, Obama
is understandably attracting record-setting levels of black support. But what
makes his candidacy so plausible is precisely his appeal to whites an appeal
that would dry up were Obama to make racial identity the focus of his campaign.
This is the interesting paradox at the heart of a campaign that is so often
described as "transcending" or "going beyond" race.
Yet real racial transcendence will be achieved not when a black candidate's race
is no bar to his election, but when it is not even an issue in his election.
When the Morgan Freeman standard becomes the rule when there are no longer
"black" candidates and "white" candidates, because Americans will be indifferent
to such labels only then will our politics have truly moved beyond race.
Is the colorblind idea nothing but a dream? It need not be.
There was a time in US history when anti-Italian prejudice was so intense that
the prospect of an Italian-American president would have been unthinkable. When
11 Italian immigrants were lynched in New Orleans in 1891, The New York Times
described the victims as "sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of
bandits and assassins . . . a pest without mitigation." During World War II,
thousands of Italian Americans were expelled from their homes, and hundreds of
immigrants were interned in military camps.
Yet there was little if any attention paid to Rudy Giuliani's ethnicity during
his recent campaign for president. No one blamed anti-Italian bigotry when his
effort came to naught. For all intents and purposes, his Italian descent was
simply not an issue.
The color of Obama's skin is irrelevant to the content of his character or his
fitness for office. Would that its significance to his campaign were also nil.
No, we're not there yet. But until we are, we would do well to remember there
is no faster way to a society in which race doesn't matter than to stop talking
and acting as if it does.
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Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.
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