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Too soon to call Sharpton and Jackson irrelevant

The Baltimore Sun

One of the most fascinating aspects of Sen. Barack Obama's electric popularity is how eagerly, like a Rorschach ink-blot test, people see in him whatever they want to see.

To some folks, for example, he isn't just running for president; he's running for the post of America's top black leader.

In this spirit, some conservatives, in particular, can't wait to bum rush the current crop of media-anointed black leaders out the door.

"The big losers, two big losers tonight are probably Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton," George Will observed after the Illinois senator swept the Iowa Democratic caucuses last week.

The Revs. Sharpton and Jackson, Mr. Will said, were "representative of those who have a sort of investment in the traditional and, I believe, utterly exhausted narrative about race relations in the United States."

Conservative radio host Bill Bennett said Mr. Obama "has taught the black community you don't have to act like Jesse Jackson; you don't have to act like Al Sharpton. You can talk about the issues. And, this is a breakthrough."

I'm sure that Mr. Will and Mr. Bennett were only saying out loud what countless other folks are thinking. More than a few Americans, regardless of race, have grown weary of politics that define people by race, ethnicity and other similarly narrow attributes. Mr. Obama has come to embody an escape route from all that.

Yet I suspect, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of Mr. Jackson's and Mr. Sharpton's irrelevance have been greatly exaggerated.

Mr. Jackson, for example, has endorsed Mr. Obama. His son, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., Democrat of Illinois, also happens to be an Obama campaign co-chair.

Mr. Sharpton lives in Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's home state, but has withheld his endorsement of anyone. In some ways, that keeps him relevant by leaving everyone guessing. As controversial as Mr. Sharpton is, he carries enough clout in New York to at least be an almost required stop by Democratic candidates.

But nationally, Mr. Sharpton is so widely disliked and resented by white voters that he's probably doing Mr. Obama a favor by not endorsing him. Like Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly, Mr. Sharpton has leveraged his crusades of racial grievance into media stardom.

Mr. Sharpton was quick to issue a statement rebutting those who think Mr. Obama makes him yesterday's news. "This almost laughable notion has been repudiated consistently by Mr. Obama himself," Mr. Sharpton declared. He noted that Mr. Obama has made several high-profile appearances with him and pointed out that "the need for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. didn't vanish when Thurgood Marshall was appointed to the Supreme Court." Well, Mr. Sharpton's no Dr. King. Nevertheless, as eager as most Americans may be to get beyond race, we're not there yet.

Two days after Iowa, an Associated Press story pondered: "Does Obama's win show U.S. is colorblind?" Well, no, I would answer - as long as his color still is worth a headline.

Toronto's Globe and Mail got closer to the heart of the matter with this headline: "Obama's rise, America's renewal; with black senator's win, a nation passes a milestone in maturing." Right on. We haven't grown out of our racially turbulent past, but we're growing out of it.

As the campaign caravan moves into states that have higher numbers of black voters than Iowa or New Hampshire, Mr. Obama and all of the other candidates will be called upon to respond to issues of great concern to blacks. I expect Mr. Obama to be ready for that. He has earned widespread praise for "transcending race," but the rest of American society has not.

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

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