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The New York Times indulges itself in the latest oddity of racial politics today regarding Barack Obama. The meme that he will struggle to find support in the black community has floated in the media for the past few weeks; I noted an article from Agence France Presse on the topic six weeks ago. At the time, African-American radio host Stanley Crouch had written a column that rejected Obama's inclusion in black America as lacking the shared background and experience of the descendants of slaves. It turns out that he's not alone:
The black author and essayist Debra J. Dickerson recently declared that “Obama isn’t black” in an American racial context. Some polls suggest that Mr. Obama trails one of his rivals for the Democratic nomination, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, in the battle for African-American support.
And at the Shepherd Park Barber Shop here, where the hair clippers hummed and the television blared, Calvin Lanier summed up the simmering ambivalence. Mr. Lanier pointed to Mr. Obama’s heritage — he is the American-born son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas — and the fact that he did not embody the experiences of most African-Americans whose ancestors endured slavery, segregation and the bitter struggle for civil rights.
“When you think of a president, you think of an American,” said Mr. Lanier, a 58-year-old barber who is still considering whether to support Mr. Obama. “We’ve been taught that a president should come from right here, born, raised, bred, fed in America. To go outside and bring somebody in from another nationality, now that doesn’t feel right to some people.”
On Wednesday, the question of race took center stage in the presidential campaign because of remarks that Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrat of Delaware, made about Mr. Obama. Mr. Biden characterized Mr. Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy” and then spent the day — his first as an official presidential candidate, explaining and apologizing for his remarks.
On the surface, this is absurd. Obama grew up as a child of an interracial couple, and I'm certain that the bigots he met along the way didn't give him a pass because his father turned out to be African rather than an American. The difference would have been almost purely rhetorical during his formative years. It's the kind of silliness that ensues when people get so wrapped up in identity politics and victimization that they start excluding people naturally inclined and suitably positioned to help them achieve their goals based on a perceived lack of authenticity.
The meme itself seems vapid beyond belief. I'm certain that the African-American community as a whole will look at Obama and see someone who champions their positions far more than the spouse of the nation's "first black President". Hillary may have her support within that voting bloc, but her run to the center will not have built a tremendous store of goodwill there, and Obama has focused on issues such as poverty from the time he worked as a community activist in Chicago. That's the kind of authenticity that wins votes in any electoral bloc.
So far, this particular subplot of Obama's lack of support in the black community appears based mainly on Crouch and Dickerson's objections, and the lack of endorsement from Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. That also seems a stretch. Not too many presidential endorsements come a year before the first primary, and no one knows what other candidates may yet run. In 2004, both Sharpton and Carol Mosely Braun ran credible campaigns in the primary, and both may try again -- which would certainly explain Sharptons reluctance.
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