With less than a week to go before the March 4 primaries it seems prudent to reflect on a question pretty much ignored by the main-stream press: How did Barack Obama overcome Black skepticism about his candidacy? In the past month, Black support for Senator Obama has been treated like an automatic response to his being a Black candidate, but recall that a year ago Hillary Clinton had a commanding lead among Black voters in South Carolina, a state she eventually lost by almost 30 percentage points. So how did Barack Obama convince Black Americans to support his candidacy? By persuading whites to vote for him, especially in the racially homogenous environment that is the Iowa Caucus. This simple act erased a central tenet of Black American orthodoxy—that because whites are racist they would never support a Black presidential candidate. As such, this political moment represents a transformational one in Black American history as momentous as the generational shift in American politics if Senator Obama were to win the presidency.
By refuting the notion of white racism, Obama’s soaring candidacy undermines the mythology of the Black American past and raises hopeful yet discomfiting questions about the future. More than a few Black editorialists have talked about the effect an Obama presidency would have on the aspirations of Black children to aspire to much more than athletic or entertainment stardom. For those aware of America’s racial history, this alone qualifies as a worthy reason to support Senator Obama. Obama’s broad racial appeal, however, is rooted in the understanding, born from intimate experience, that most whites while they acknowledge America’s shameful racial past do not themselves feel like the perpetrators of those historic injustices. This means that talk about reparations and systemic racism fail to resonate among whites who, like their Black fellow citizens, are trying to make ends meet and raise families in ever more challenging economic and social environments. Why should Blacks get help from the Federal Government, they wonder, when they themselves come from disempowered backgrounds. Black leaders have been quick to call this perspective racist while not acknowledging that it is also true. Obama has navigated this treacherous channel by appealing to the best in the white electorate by affirming their commitment to racial equality while not holding them responsible for the sins of their fathers.
The fact that this strategy might lead to no less an office than the presidency speaks to its own efficacy and compels Black Americans to re-assess a history that accents victimization in the face of something apparently more resonant and powerful. In this sense, Obama triumphant compels the creation of a new Black American world-view, one that without diminishing the past, promotes a vision that acknowledges the fullness of Black American citizenship.