It’s too early to know whether Barack Obama is a genuine change agent vis a vis Blacks’ concerns or just an enticing mirage. The question of where he stands is vital, whether or not he wins the presidential nomination because change is the heart of his candidacy. Obama obviously possesses exceptional political and oratorical skills, but this begs the question of whether being steeped in traditional politics, will he take the risks upon which change is built. It remains to be seen. However, he deserves the benefit of doubt that his commitment to systemic change is real.
What’s up on the Los Angeles political scene with its Black Congressional delegation—all women—lock-step in support of Hillary Clinton? Of course, they have every right to support her, but it’s a safe bet that their backing is virtually without serious consideration of Obama’s qualifications. Rather, it smacks of traditional political machinations, without primary consideration of a unifying Black agenda. Apparently, loyalty to the Democratic Party is more important. Maxine Waters and Diane Watson (Laura Richardson is along for the ride) have long championed the need for effective Black leadership and embracing Hillary appears to be unadulterated, traditional political bartering. Both have long decried the glass ceiling for Blacks and women, first consideration for “those who look like us.”
What happened? There is little justification for prima facie support for Hillary except repeated references to Hillary’s” experience”—and Obama’s lack of same. On virtually every issue, Obama trumps Hillary as the candidate better able to serve Blacks’ interests and monitoring his position on key issues over the next several months should determine whether he measures up to expectations. Thus far, his message resonates not only among Blacks, but with a broad swatch of the voting public. Still, uncritical acceptance, or denial, of Obama’s qualifications is a mistake. Similarly, Hillary’s attributes should not be minimized: she embodies traditional Democratic Party principles and is the consummate Washington insider. In some respects, she represents the classic patronizing white liberal, keeping the natives in check by currying their favor with political crumbs.
Obama naysayers are legion; the following are some of the more crass excuses for not supporting him followed by equally pungent rebuttals:
“He’s not ready; he’s not experienced.” “Come on. The top three Democratic candidates have one senate term under their belts, and Hillary Clinton has not made one executive decision.” “White America is not ready for a Black president.” Was white America ready for slavery to end, etc.? “I don’t know what issues Barak stands for.” Has that ever prevented Black folks for voting for a Black candidate? People can’t tell you anything about Clinton’s or John Edwards’ platform either. “If all those white people are supporting him, he must be in their back pocket.” Save the conspiracy theory people for the countless examples where it fits. “The real reason Black people don’t want to vote for Obama is that they’re afraid he’ll win and they’ll have no more excuses left.”
Most Blacks never thought they would live to see a viable Black presidential candidate; no wonder hyperbole is the order of the day when it comes to his campaign. Black, white and other supporters like to believe he defies the primacy of race. It isn’t true, but that notion resonates broadly, particularly among those who have been disenfranchised for so long they can hardly believe Obama’s competitive ascendancy is real. Writer Jervy Tervalon cautions that “Obama has fire in his belly to get this far”, but worries that”he’ll need a raging furnace to survive if he wins.”
Race is an indelible part of America’s fabric and here are a few Obama quips to reflect on. He’s had to change his approach from skirting the race issue to dealing with it straight on. He decries a criminal justice defined by inequity. “I don’t want Scooter Libby justice for some and Jeno justice for others.” Many of the Black electorate’s early concerns that he could not be elected because of his race were assuaged by his victory in Iowa-one of the country’s whitest states. He now casts his former message of colorblind unity in racial terms, arguing that “Blacks, Latinos and Asians want to move beyond our divisions.”
Although recent polls indicate while white Americans are increasingly comfortable with the idea of a Black president, they feel the best way for Obama to win their votes is to focus on his vision for the country, above and beyond race. Curiously, thus far, race seems more a positive than negative for him. Still, his superlative oratory skills should always illuminate, not obfuscate, his resolve to address the pernicious reality of racism. “We owe the people a real choice,” he intones, and his words are reverberating throughout the country. “We are the ones we have been waiting for,” he often adds.
Obama’s litmus test, win or lose, is whether he maintains a discernible, unapologetic focus on the specific needs of the nation’ Black population. Otherwise, he will have been just another brilliant, charismatic American politician.
Larry Aubry n can be contacted at e-mail
Correction to last week’s article: “Education is a Civil Right,” Dr. Bill Cosby did not provide start-up funds for this project.