Caught Up in the Concept

If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept. –Former Clinton advisor Geraldine Ferraro

She’s gone now, tossed overboard like so many other campaign workers, advisors, and supporters of dubious reputation from both camps of the Democratic divide. In the political civil war that no one dares name, former Vice-Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro expressed the unspoken views of many who see this contest as some sort of affirmative action for the Oval Office. And Hillary, to her credit, quickly denounced and rejected Ferraro’s comments (and her support). But that begs the question: was she right? Is Barak Obama where he is because he’s black?

In South Carolina, where there is only one African American member of the Governor’s Cabinet, and only 35 members of the Black Legislative Caucus (out of 170 legislators), being black is not an advantage to seeking office. South Carolina’s population is roughly 30 per cent African American, but our General Assembly is 80 per cent white. Even if gerrymandering were sufficient to racialize legislative districts, African Americans are hugely under-represented in the State House. But that’s still better than the U.S. Congress, where there are only 43 African Americans, and only one in the Senate: Barak Obama. Apparently, it’s not an overwhelming advantage to be black and running for Congress either.

In past Presidential contests, only three names ever gathered even minimal support: Democrats Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, and Republican Alan Keyes. None of them garnered enough support to even be considered for the number two spot. The one who got away, General Colin Powell, might have made it to the White House, if only he had the fire in his belly. Instead, he took a job as an apologist for George Bush, and you know how well that turned out. In the past, it was never an advantage to be black and running for President.

What’s so different about 2008? Has America finally repented of its original sin of racism and decided to choose someone for President based on the content of his character rather than the color of his skin? Or is Obama getting a free ride, because we’re all afraid that he’s going to file a racial bias complaint with EEOC? Are those of us (white males) who find ourselves in the Obama camp there because we think that we should just promote him to show how progressive we are on race? Are we overlooking the kinds of things that we would have never tolerated from John Edwards or Chris Dodd?

No, America is still a racial minefield, as the eruption after Ferraro’s remarks reveals. We have not acknowledged, must less repented of the sin of racism. No, Obama is not getting a free ride, as the pile-on over a sermon his former Pastor preached after 9-11 shows. (Good thing some of my post 9-11 sermons aren’t in print…) No, most of the white male supporters of Obama are not trying to show how progressive they, because many of them don’t even consider themselves “progressives” (which used to be spelled “liberal” when that word was still used in family newspapers). And no, we are not overlooking Obama’s short resume or thin policy papers.

In a way, Ferraro did get it right: we are “caught up” in Obama, because of “who he is.” Because he’s the first candidate in a generation to excite us, to melt our cynicism, to inspire us to believe that maybe, just maybe, America can regain some of the ground it has lost in the past generation. Because we believe that he might bring real change through real leadership. Because we believe that he represents the best ideas, the best values, the best of all that is good and noble about the idea that is America.

The idea that is America holds that anyone, black or white, rich or poor, male or female can rise to lead this nation. Barak Obama embodies that idea. A boy, raised by a single mother, nearly lost to poverty, drugs and despair, he found within himself the power to change. Because he did, he holds out hope that we can change too.

He did it, not because he is black, nor in spite of it. He did it because he believes in an America that, at its best, is still one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. In America at its best, one does not become President because of one’s color or one chromosomes. One becomes President because one can lead.

And that’s who he is: a leader. Not a black leader. Not a male leader. A leader. And that’s why he will be the next President of the United States.

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