Obama walks a fine line to avoid black stereo­typ­ing

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Christina Bellantoni

Sen. Barack Obama is strik­ing a del­i­cate bal­ance to cap­ture black vot­ers but avoid be­com­ing the stereo­type that has sunk past black hope­fuls for the White House.

The Illi­nois Demo­crat is run­ning ads in South Carolina to shore up sup­port among black vot­ers and told a black au­di­ence on July 27 that his elec­tion would cre­ate a “trans­for­ma­tion” of U.S. race re­la­tions. How­ever, po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts and prom­i­nent black lead­ers ob­serv­ing the 2008 pres­i­den­tial race say Mr. Obama, who trails Sen. Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton among blacks, has not locked up the com­mu­nity’s vote.

“He’s not run­ning for pres­i­dent of black Amer­ica, but for all of Amer­ica, but he has to be par­tic­u­larly sen­si­tive not to lose out on this cru­cial vot­ing bloc,” said po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tant Mor­ris Reid, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor at the Westin Rine­hart Group. “Most African-Amer­i­can can­di­dates run­ning for pres­i­dent thus far have not had such a main­stream mes­sage.”

Mr. Obama is a much dif­fer­ent can­di­date than the Rev. Al Sharp­ton, who ran in 2004, and the Rev. Jesse Jack­son, who ran twice in the 1980s, Mr. Reid said. He would be wise to con­tinue try­ing to be a can­di­date for ev­ery­one in­stead of get­ting pi­geon­holed as the can­di­date only con­cerned about mi­nor­ity rights. Mr. Obama mas­tered this idea by giv­ing a “non-an­swer” to a ques­tion about repa­ra­tions dur­ing the re­cent YouTube de­bate, Mr. Reid said.

“If you want him to do what Al Sharp­ton and Jesse Jack­son did, you don’t want him to be a win­ning can­di­date,” said Mr. Reid, who is host­ing a fundraiser soon for Mrs. Clin­ton.

Kurt Schmoke, dean at Howard Univer­sity Law School, agreed.

“Be­cause he doesn’t come out of the civil rights lead­er­ship tra­di­tion, nor did he build his ca­reer in [the] civil rights move­ment, it’s harder to la­bel him in the way peo­ple la­beled Rev­erend Jack­son and Rev­erend Sharp­ton,” said Mr. Schmoke, a for­mer mayor of Bal­ti­more.

“More peo­ple talk about him as a sen­a­tor who hap­pens to be black. Obama’s is a le­git­i­mate can­di­dacy, while Rev­erend Jack­son’s cam­paign was pri­mar­ily a voter-reg­is­tra­tion ef­fort and Sharp­ton’s was some­what of a protest move­ment,” he said.

David Bosi­tis, a se­nior po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst at the Joint Cen­ter for Po­lit­i­cal and Eco­nomic Stud­ies, also noted the sen­a­tor’s cre­den­tials and called him “the first se­ri­ous black can­di­date who has run for pres­i­dent.”

Most polls show Mrs. Clin­ton, of New York, is the strong fa­vorite among black Democrats. A re­cent CNN poll shows her lead­ing Mr. Obama by 16 points in the key early pri­mary state of South Carolina among black vot­ers, who make up nearly half the Demo­cratic pri­mary elec­torate there.

Rep. Ar­tur Davis and oth­ers cau- tion that past polls in­clude too-small sam­ples of black vot­ers. Mr. Davis, Alabama Demo­crat, an Obama sup­porter, pointed to a sur­vey re­leased two weeks ago show­ing a “dra­matic turn­around” among black vot­ers in his state.

The mid-July Cap­i­tal Sur­vey Re­search Cen­ter poll of 841 likely Alabama vot­ers showed Mr. Obama four points be­hind, within strik­ing dis­tance of Mrs. Clin­ton. Her lead in the same poll in April had been 16 points. Among that state’s black vot­ers, Mr. Obama leads Mrs. Clin­ton by 21 points. Two months ago, she led him by eight points.

“Black vot­ers are be­gin­ning to put aside their skep­ti­cism,” Mr. Davis said, ac­knowl­edg­ing that the Clin­ton fam­ily is “very much ad­mired in the black com­mu­nity.”

“As black vot­ers be­come more aware of Barack Obama and the vi­a­bil­ity of his can­di­dacy, you are see­ing sig­nif­i­cant move­ment,” he said. “Their ex­cite­ment is build­ing as the coun­try is se­ri­ously con­tem­plat­ing [. . . ] elect­ing [him]. The coun­try was not ready to elect a black pres­i­dent in 1984 and 1988, no mat­ter what Jesse Jack­son’s qual­i­fi­ca­tions.”

Still, the Obama cam­paign is step­ping up its ef­forts to reach black vot­ers, par­tic­u­larly in South Carolina. His new ra­dio ads, run­ning on 36 ur­ban and gospel sta­tions in the South’s first pri­mary state, are mostly bi­o­graph­i­cal and out­line the sen­a­tor’s ex­pe­ri­ence as a Chicago com­mu­nity or­ga­nizer.

“De­spite all the progress that has been made, we still have more work to do,” Mr. Obama says in the ad, which fea­tures a deep-voiced male nar­ra­tor call­ing the sen­a­tor a “Chris­tian fam­ily man” and a “sol­dier for jus­tice.”

“We have more work to do when more young black men lan­guish in prison than at­tend col­leges and univer­si­ties across Amer­ica,” he says. “We’ve got more work to do when it takes a hur­ri­cane and bod- ies float­ing through a street for us to rec­og­nize race and poverty in this coun­try.”

On the stump in front of both black and white au­di­ences, Mr. Obama talks about re­form­ing health care and ed­u­ca­tion as a way to “solve the race prob­lem.”

He also doesn’t shy away from the his­toric as­pect of his can­di­dacy.

“The day I’m in­au­gu­rated, the coun­try looks at it­self dif­fer­ently,” Mr. Obama said on July 27 at an Ur­ban League meet­ing in St. Louis. “Don’t un­der­es­ti­mate that power. Don’t un­der­es­ti­mate the trans­for­ma­tion.”

Ur­ban League Pres­i­dent Marc Mo­rial said on CNN on July 29 that while Mr. Obama’s can­di­dacy has sym­bolic mean­ing, the black vote is “in play.”

“I think what it shows is the ma­tu­rity of the African-Amer­i­can elec­torate in South Carolina and across the na­tion [. . . ]. No one can take the vote of African Amer­i­cans for granted in this elec­tion cy­cle,” the for­mer mayor of New Or­leans said on “Late Edi­tion.” “What we have in the Demo­cratic side, at this point, is com­pe­ti­tion.”

Mrs. Clin­ton has been pil­ing up en­dorse­ments from black of­fice­hold­ers and celebri­ties, re­cently nab­bing the sup­port of mu­si­cian Quincy Jones.

“Hil­lary Clin­ton is one of my fa­vorite ladies on this planet, who I’ve known for a long, long time and who I be­lieve in and will go to the ends of the earth for,” Mr. Jones said in a video trib­ute to Mrs. Clin­ton at a lunch event with 200 black men sup­port­ing her can­di­dacy.

Minyon Moore, a se­nior ad­viser to the Clin­ton cam­paign, said black vot­ers want a nom­i­nee with a record of “cham­pi­oning the is­sues that are im­por­tant to our com­mu­nity,” such as ed­u­ca­tion and health care.

“She’s not build­ing it; she brings that to the ta­ble. There’s a trust level there for her be­cause of her his­tory,” Miss Moore said.

As­so­ci­ated Press

Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial con­tender Sen. Barack Obama trails Sen. Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton among black vot­ers in some key pri­mary states, such as South Carolina.

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