For Obama, Race Remains Elephant in the Room

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Chris Gardner / Getty Images

Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama speaks during a Sept. 4 rally in Lancaster, Pa.

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White America has shown an abundant willingness to support no-demands blacks like Tiger Woods, Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell and Will Smith, but a race man like Malcolm X would be another story. It was no accident that Bill Clinton tried to pigeonhole Obama in the primaries as another Jesse Jackson, or that Michelle Obama introduced her family at the convention as a new version of the Cosbys (or the Bradys). Obama's opponents want him to look niche, like BET or Chris Rock or the NBA; his challenge is to prove that he's also attractive to the ABC and Dane Cook and MLB crowds. During the primaries, Joe Biden took flak for his dopey description of Obama as "the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." Articulate is one of those racially tinged words that sports announcers use to express surprise that a black man can speak proper English, and clean hints at even uglier stereotypes. But the key word in that verbal vomit was mainstream, because it suggested that most blacks aren't. And the media perpetuates that idea by excluding middle-class blacks from their middle-class calculus.

This is touchy stuff, partly because "the race card" is not always, so to speak, a black-and-white issue. New York governor David Paterson recently accused Republicans of using "community organizer" as a subtle racial put-down; that seems hypersensitive to the point of paranoia. Obama was a community organizer, and his opponents should be able to criticize him without being accused of race baiting. But it's tricky when the attacks wander into the neighborhood of racial stereotypes, like the McCain "Celebrity" ad linking Obama to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, which had a whiff of lock-up-your-women alarmism about the sexual power of black men. The usually somnolent David Gergen lashed out at McCain's ad portraying Obama as the Messiah, calling it a subtle but intentional effort to paint a black man as The Other. "It's the subtext of this campaign; everybody knows that," Gergen said. "As a native of the South, I can tell you, when you see this ad, 'The One,' that's code for, 'He's uppity; he ought to stay in his place.' "

The McCain camp — before its recent forays into the politics of umbrage and grievance — dismissed the ad furor as political correctness run amok. "Have a sense of humor," spokeswoman Nicole Wallace told me. For his part, Obama never accused McCain (or Biden, for that matter) of playing the race card. He wrote eloquently about race in his books, and he spoke eloquently about race during the Wright flap, but he's avoided the subject ever since the McCain campaign accused him of playing the race card, after he suggested that Republicans would try to remind voters that he doesn't look like the Presidents on U.S. currency. I've already reported Obama's negative response to a New Hampshire voter who asked him to launch another Clintonesque national conversation about race: "All that self-flagellation, it's not useful. African Americans get all riled up, and whites get defensive." In a year when generic Democrats are trouncing generic Republicans and polls suggest that the domestic and foreign policies he supports are much more popular than McCain's, it's certainly not useful for Obama.

So Obama is probably wise to ignore the liberals who keep begging him to drop his air of unflappability and start taking Republican scalps. White America already embraces black celebrities, even "flashy" ones. But it has never really warmed up to an angry one.

(See photos of Barack Obama on the campaign trail here.)
(See photos of Barack Obama backstage at the DNC here.)

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