There's no question that Barack Obama's bid for the presidency is historic. It's a milestone that many of us, black and white, never thought we'd hit in our lifetime. If Obama were to disappear tomorrow, I'd still be reeling from the realization that a person of color came so close to occupying the White House (an idea that's resonated with special significance this election year). Given all the problems and inequalities that still characterize much of black America and the overwhelmingly negative images of black men the media still portray, his rise is even more impressive. Obama's skills and qualifications notwithstanding, he's beating the odds in an unprecedented way.
But whether his candidacy (or presidency) is a turning point beyond the racial symbolism remains to be seen. Though Obama's politics were certainly shaped by the civil rights movement -- he was a community organizer in Chicago's South Side and taught racism and the law at the University of Chicago -- it's hard to know how much of that will inform his leadership as president should he win the election. Of course, he hasn't been campaigning as a "black" candidate, but black people don't really expect him to. As Obama supporter Amiri Baraka said recently, "He is not running for the president of the NAACP." We all know he's stumping for every American, and black people know better than anybody the fine line you have to walk to win over whites and non-blacks who resist the idea of black people representing them in any meaningful way.
That said, Obama should certainly address issues of concern to African Americans, not simply because he's one of us (though that helps) but because such issues impact all of us. The state of black people has always been a barometer of how well America is fulfilling its democratic ideals. For that reason, all presidents, not just Obama, should be held accountable for addressing and redressing "black" issues, which have been the same for a very long time: education, housing, employment and criminal justice.
Unfortunately, we have a terrible history of presidents -- and politicians in general -- even acknowledging that black issues are important American issues. After Lincoln, FDR and Lyndon Johnson, there's virtually nobody else. ( Bill Clinton was popular with black folks, but his policies didn't serve them well, to say the least). We have very few role models for this. So as much as it distresses me, it makes sense that the public today believes that a black president should not address matters of importance to black people because doing so would be a sign of racial regression, not progress.
This is totally Orwellian logic to me. But it's a product of a post-racial campaign that this country has been running for the last couple of decades, and it's been effective. We can congratulate ourselves for having a black candidate, but that candidate can't identify too much with other black people or he risks losing his appeal, magic or whatever. It's the same old game America has always played, defining the limits and qualifications of blackness to its liking and comfort level. That's not justice. I still have great hope for Obama, though probably not the same kind of hope most of his supporters have.
Erin Aubry Kaplan is a freelance writer and contributing editor to Opinion. She is a former weekly columnist for The Times and a former LA Weekly staff writer. She blogs at threebrothersandasister.blogspot.com.
Obama's sensational run for the White House is historic. It is a milestone in American history and politics and hopefully signals cultural sea change in the capacity of whites to see people of any color -- and especially black people -- as American leaders.
But every success for a black person is not a civil rights victory. It was a civil rights victory when President Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act, clearing the way for the federal government to protect the rights of black people to vote. That law led to an unprecedented increase in the number of black voters and has changed the political power equation in America. It is the heart of real black power.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act, also aided by federal courts, opened the doors of equal opportunity to all Americans. Combined with the power of the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, the 1964 legislation boosted job and educational opportunities for black people and sparked a stunning transformation of American society. The results are clear: The U.S. has a larger black middle class and people of color have more political influence in governing bodies ranging from local school boards to city halls to Congress.
The Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act and the Brown decision are the definitive civil rights victories of the last few generations.
Obama's breakthrough is partly rooted in the power of the black vote in the Democratic Party. But don't forget that Obama got his initial boost from young white voters as some African- American voices initially questioned whether he could win and whether he was authentically black. Indeed, the nearly all-white voters in the Iowa caucuses set the Obama campaign on its winning path.
Erin, you spin off into a debate far from the question of civil rights victories when you argue about the need for Obama to address black issues. He is a politician trying to win the biggest prize in American politics. To win, he will make deals, flip-flop, compromise and even turn his back on anybody dragging him down. Politicians are like that. They are not civil rights leaders operating on their conscience or appeals to justice. Obama advertises himself as a post-racial candidate who crosses ethnic boundaries to speak to issues that unify Americans. Far too many souls want to make Obama a black leader and put the weight of civil rights history on his shoulders.
When it comes to Obama and the history of the black movement in America, the most apt metaphor is that of a flower. Obama is one particularly eye-catching flower of a movement that has grown through hard Earth and vines. He has endured heels that would have crushed any hand planting a seed. His success, rooted in his impressive education, would not be possible without the civil rights victories throughout American history. But you cannot discount the host of other factors that have enabled Obama's meteoric rise, including demographic shifts, economic changes, immigration and a gradual change of heart among a large number of whites. That is why Obama is both of the black community and bigger than the black community.
Juan Williams is a senior correspondent for National Public Radio, a Fox News analyst and author of "Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America -- and What We Can Do About It."