Moving beyond the bind of race

The Baltimore Sun

I wasn't there, but I'm guessing that Sen. Barack Obama winced uncomfortably over at least one of comedian Chris Rock's jokes at a fundraiser for the Illinois Democrat in Harlem's historic Apollo Theater last week. Mr. Rock quipped that his mostly black audience would be "real embarrassed" if Mr. Obama won after they had supported New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"You'd say, 'I had that white lady! What was I thinking,'" he said, according to Associated Press.

That line might well have passed without much notice had it come amid the usual raunchy fare on late-night cable TV. But race is a particularly sensitive topic in the world of politics. Expect Mr. Obama, as we journalists like to say, to "distance himself" from the remarks.

After all, the biracial Mr. Obama has made inoffensiveness and outreach across racial, ethnic and ideological lines a signature theme of his presidential campaign, even as his effort has brought a stronger outpouring of support from whites than he has received from blacks.

For example, his Harlem fundraiser came during a week of dueling endorsements with front-runner Clinton. She won the support of a group of black ministers in South Carolina. Oprah Winfrey announced she would campaign for Mr. Obama. One national poll had Mr. Obama trailing Mrs. Clinton among black voters nationwide. A poll in pivotal South Carolina, where blacks make up about half of the Democratic primary voters, had Mr. Obama closing his gap into a neck-and-neck statistical tie.

Over Thanksgiving dinner and elsewhere, I have heard a lot of reasons from my own little focus group of black voters as to why the race for black votes among the Democratic presidential candidates gave an early edge to Mrs. Clinton. A lot of black folks have serious doubts that America will elect a black president. Black voters naturally have turned to a candidate whom they like, Mrs. Clinton, even if some of them like her husband better.

Fifty percent of black Americans say Mr. Obama shares their values, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll. But the other half dismiss him as having only "some" or "not much" or "not at all" in common with the values of black Americans.

Mr. Obama has refused to allow his crossover dreams to be dimmed by the racial hang-ups of others, he told Chicago Tribune reporter and Obama biographer David Mendell.

"What I've found," he said, "is they are usually going through identity issues themselves and they project those issues onto me."

That line came to mind as I read Hoover Institution scholar Shelby Steele's new book-length essay, "A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win."

Whether the Illinois Democrat realizes it, he is trapped in the "double bind" of race in America, Mr. Steele writes. He argues that Mr. Obama is "a bound man who cannot serve the aspirations of one race without betraying those of the other."

I think Mr. Steele is being too hard on Mr. Obama and the process of politics within which the senator is trying to operate. In Mr. Steele's world, you have to be either a "challenger" like the Revs. Jesse L. Jackson and Al Sharpton or a "bargainer" who makes the deal with the white world to refrain from making whites feel guilty in exchange for their cooperation.

I think Mr. Obama is trying to play a different role, that of a cultural bridge-builder. He's trying to challenge the soul-crushing system that Mr. Steele decries. Most Americans seem to want to see more unity in our politics after years of polarization; Mr. Obama certainly can't pull that off overnight. But at least he has begun the process.

And with all due respect to the progress that Americans have made in race relations, there still are folks out there who think Mr. Obama is "too black" for their tastes. As a white South Carolina man told CBS News correspondent Dean Reynolds last week, "I don't want to sound prejudiced or anything, but for one, I am not going to vote for a colored man to be our president."

Somehow I doubt that Mr. Obama would have gotten his vote anyway.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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