A survey taken late last month for CBS found that nearly 40 percent of black voters in South Carolina believe the country is not "ready to elect a black president," compared with 34 percent of whites — a sentiment that Obama aides viewed as a far greater impediment to his election than flat-out racism among those who would never vote for him anyway.
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—Los Angeles Times, January 7, 2008
Earlier this month, I drove my daughter to her high school entrance exam at a beautiful private school so stately and moneyed that we can't really afford its substantial tuition but nevertheless want her to attend because we aren't happy with the local school district. We've considered the two public school systems bordering Pasadena — La Canada and South Pasadena — but we fear their administrators might see her as a type, unmotivated and uninterested in education as opposed to what she is, an extremely bright and ambitious child. Maybe we're being overly protective and thin-skinned, but our daughter is brown-skinned and racial tracking still happens — we just don't call it that anymore. Kids get sorted into the classes that somebody decides they should be in, and race still affects those decisions.
The world I live in is so informed by race that I'm pleasantly surprised, maybe even shocked, that we have reached the point in American history where an African-American has jumped the tracks and is now a front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination — one with substantial white support, which may be more idealistic than his black support. You must excuse me if this promising situation produces the kind of anxiety in me that I feel when I worry how my daughter will fit into what has been a more inclusive, but still racially polarized, America.
What inspires hope is that Barack Obama is perceived as an agent of change and of national reconciliation, and that this has little to do with his race other than that it solidifies his outsider status and satisfies what the overwhelming majority of Americans say they need right now after the tragicomedy of the cowboy Bush years — something aesthetically and substantially different. That's a hands-on bet for Obama or Hillary.
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The oddest aspect of race in Obama's quest for the presidency early on was the attack on his Afro-authenticity. To question Obama's blackness is absurd, but it's questioned anyway. He's damned for not being the pure black that we have come to appreciate so thoroughly. How far have we progressed on the issue of race if the media legitimize a reverse brown-paper-bag test that favors Clarence Thomas' authentically chocolate skin as he whines about treacherous liberals and those sellout light-skinned biracial black people?
I wish I could feel the unrestrained hope that Obama inspires in so many white people. It's not that I believe he won't live up to the hype. Even if you see him as an agent of hope and change, and he turns out to be a politician doing what politicians do, certainly that will be a radical improvement over what we have now. He has fire in the belly to get this far — but I worry that he'll need a raging furnace to survive if he wins the nomination. I hope that the American public is aware of what it will mean if Obama is the Democratic nominee. If you want to support Obama, be prepared for it to get truly ugly; if you're disheartened by Bill and Hillary's tag-team Sister Souljah'ing of Obama, you don't have the stomach for what will come next.
If Obama receives the nomination, we will live through interesting, unpredictable times, with an election that could easily become a distillation of the civil rights movement, encompassing progress and reaction, maybe even riots and reconciliation, as we lurch forward into the future. The candidate will have directed at him the greatest oppositional talents of the Republican Party, ones with the ability to race-bait a black man, even a collected, polished biracial one. It's been done before, and done well right here in Los Angeles. Tom Bradley had to run twice for white Los Angeles before the electorate realized he wasn't a bigger, blacker Malcolm X. The loyal but unhinged far-right opposition must be licking its lips at the prospect of transfiguring Obama from a reflective, intellectual candidate into a crack-using Muslim Manchurian candidate. Even before last week's contentious South Carolina debate, before primary voting began, we saw Hillary Clinton's political hack — he resigned, she apologized — mention Obama's admission of teenage cocaine experimentation, and much has been made of his middle name, the dread Hussein. The Karl Roves of the nation will do their best, and will probably succeed, in raising Obama's negatives to a degree that his John Kennedy good looks and charisma will be replaced with simple savage fear of a black man. Maybe even I would cross a poorly lit street to avoid an Obama driven mad by Republican political strategists.
My nightmare is that Obama will be demonized and the country will become even more untenable, more like Pakistan, verging on chaos, and our hope for a transformed America will be battered into submission by a thuggish right wing that brought us where we are today. Be prepared for a Herculean struggle the likes of which we haven't seen in generations, a bloody mess fought on racial terms, because what else will the Republican nominee have to throw at Obama, with the economy in the toilet and the war ongoing? Obama will be savaged; our real first black president will be sorely tested like a political Jackie Robinson, enduring vicious humiliations for the greater good of the nation. We need to accept the fact that for Obama to win, we may have to carry him to victory on his shield.