Reidblog [The Reid Report blog]

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008
The Obama dilemma
Watching Sheila Jackson Lee tonight in her role as Hillary flak on MSNBC, and even watching the supposedly "neutral" Al Sharpton (he has never been an Obama fan, I'll just leave it at that...) I can't help feel a bit sorry for the Black Clinton surrogates and supporters. The elected officials and clergy who have backed her, on the basis of Bill, now look short sighted (or like haters). As John Conyers put it in an interview with TNR:
"To me, there's a historical consideration in this as well," Conyers says. "How in the world could I explain to people I fought for civil rights and equality, then we come to the point where an African American of unquestioned capability has a chance to become president and I said, 'No, I have dear old friends I've always supported, who I've always liked.' What do you tell your kids?"
Worse, for the elected officials, their constituents don't appear to be paying much attention to them. Here in Florida, Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton among Black voters 73%-25% according to the exit polls, with Blacks beating their percentage of the population (14%) by making up 19% of the electorate -- this despite the fact that all three Black congressmen from Florida (Alcee Hastings, Kendrick Meek and Corinne Brown) are with Hillary.

It seems unfair to say that Black elected officials and public personalities should feel pressured to support Obama because he is Black. But as Conyers said, it becomes difficult to justify when Obama is, beyond being Black, so inspirational and aspirational a candidate, for so many Americans -- Black and White.

And to add to the irony, the pressure on Black folk to support Obama now stands in stark contrast to a year ago, when I was defending Barack on the air against constant attacks from Black radio listeners (and from my P.D. at the time, Coz Carson) because Barack "wasn't Black enough," has no family history of slavery, and never fought in the trenches of the civil rights movement with Al Sharpton and others. It was that ambivalence, exemplified by Tavis Smiley, and for awhile, by Cornell West (who has since endorsed Barack) -- that represents the other part of the Obama conundrum: Blacks didn't embrace him until he showed them he could win a nearly all-white state (Iowa), and the more Blacks embrace him, the more he risks losing his essential charm for White folk: the fact that he is not a creature of the second generation of the civil rights movement (or as some Whites put it, he doesn't have a chip on his shoulder.) From Salon earlier this month:
As Obama's campaign got started, black media juggernaut Tavis Smiley exemplified the black community's lukewarm response, declaring, "There is not a black groundswell ... saying 'Run, Obama, Run.'" He pinpointed Obama's lack of common history with other black Americans as part of what made people of color skeptical about him, because he did not have a "long-standing relationship with the black community." Around the same time, prominent black intellectual Cornel West criticized Obama for beginning his campaign in Springfield, Ill. (which he implied is a predominantly white community), instead of at Smiley's State of Black America conference. Like Smiley, Debra J. Dickerson, writing in Salon, described Obama as "not black" in part because his biography does not include the legacy of slavery.

(The article goes on to ask, "if Obama embraces his inner whiteness, will black voters reject him...?)


On that note, it will be interesting to see if Barack chooses to attend the State of the Black Union conference this year. I hear Tavis had some chilly words for him today on the Tom Joyner show (I didn't hear it), and Roland Martin is advising Barack to skip the conference (again.) If he goes, he takes the risk of stepping closer to the kind of Black issues and identity that turn many Whites off. If he doesn't go, he risks being pushed away again by the Black intelligentsia. But then, who's listening to them (or their counterparts in White, conservative talk radio) these days, anyway?

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posted by JReid @ 10:49 PM  
ReidBlog: The Obama Interview
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