Whether Barack Obama would be a better president than Hillary Rodham Clinton, or John McCain, or Mitt Romney is an interesting and debatable question. But it is beyond debate that an Obama win in 2008 would be by far the best thing that has happened to African-Americans, and to race relations, in more than 50 years.
Obama embodies and preaches the true and vital message that in today's America, the opportunities available to black people are unlimited if they work hard, play by the rules, and get a good education.
Electing a charismatic, intellectually supercharged African-American president who preaches hope and opportunity would do more than anything else imaginable to tell young black people what they need to hear: This land is your land. And more than any other, it is a land of opportunity.
This is not the message that African-Americans have been getting over the past few decades from the media or from the "leaders" aptly described in the subtitle of the fine 2006 book by NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams, Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America—and What We Can Do About It.
One thing we can do about it is to focus attention on can-do black leaders and thinkers such as Barack Obama, former Rep. Harold Ford, D-Tenn., Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala., Colin Powell, Cory Booker, Donna Brazile, Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Tiger Woods, and Thomas Sowell.
"Pompadour With a Monkey Wrench" (March 2001)
Al Sharpton wants to become the leader of Black America. Problem is, that job no longer exists. By Mark Bowden
We can also relegate to the dustbin of history the snake-oil salesmen who have been anointed by the media as the leaders of black America, even as they have used their prominence to poison race relations while (in many cases) living high on the hog. These include Jesse Jackson, aptly dubbed "an extortion artist for the grievance elite" by black conservative Shelby Steele; Jackson competitor Al Sharpton, the dishonest demagogue who rose to prominence by orchestrating the infamous 1987 Tawana Brawley "rape" fraud; NAACP Chairman Julian Bond and much of the rest of the current leadership of that deeply degraded shell of a once-noble organization, which even now is emulating Sharpton by doing its utmost to keep alive the collapsing Duke lacrosse team "rape" fraud; the victimologist professors who dominate most university departments of African-American studies; and the fatuous slavery reparations movement.
"It is almost analgesic to talk about what the white man is doing against us," as Bill Cosby told the annual convention of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition in 2004. "It keeps you frozen in your hole you are sitting in."
Yes, a shamefully large percentage of black children do not get good educations. But that is not because of residual white racism. Indeed, some of the nation's worst—and most lavishly funded—schools are run by black-dominated local governments. Nor is "white privilege," to borrow the jargon of race-obsessed professors, a major obstacle to black success today.
Another benefit of electing Obama would be to help shrink that residue of white racism to vestigial proportions. How would white racists explain away the intellectual distinction that brought Obama high honors at Harvard Law School and the presidency of its prestigious law review?
It's true that many African-American voters eye Obama warily. One reason is that jealous black "leaders," rightly in fear of being eclipsed, suggest that he might not be "black enough." There is also something to Peter Beinart's assertion in The New Republic that for a man such as Obama, "the more whites love you, the more you must reassure your own community that you are still one of them. And the more you do that, the more you jeopardize your white support."
For this reason Obama, like every other Democratic presidential candidate, must pay ritual obeisance to Sharpton and Jackson lest he offend the many black voters who still identify with them. But he seems deft enough to do that without falling into the trap of dignifying the lie that white America is still oppressing black America.
What of the fact that this son of a Kenyan father and a white Kansan, raised in Indonesia by his mother and stepfather, and in Hawaii by white grandparents, has not fully felt what it is to be a descendant of American slaves? None of that matters much. Obama's soaring success should tell black children everywhere that they, too, can succeed, and they do not need handouts or reparations. It should tell those white Americans who still don't get it that people with African blood can and regularly do achieve at the highest levels.
It should not take an Obama presidency to drive home these lessons. But the myth of continuing African-American victimhood still has the power to wilt the hopes and aspirations of more children every day.
One reason for the power of the myth is that, for many, it represents an understandable inference from the fact that America remains racially stratified, with disproportionate numbers of blacks at the bottom in terms of education, wealth, and income. The inference is mistaken. Even if all traces of white racism were to vanish, racial stratification would persist until more poor African-American children get enlightened parenting and good educations.
The other reason for the power of the myth is the drumbeat of publicity wildly exaggerating the persistence and pervasiveness of white racism that is churned out on a daily basis by onetime civil-rights groups such as the NAACP, by too many black politicians, by academia, and by the media.
All of this has contributed to a crippling loss of hope among underprivileged (and even some more-affluent) black people. This despondency has not been dispelled by 30 years of racial preferences. It will not be dispelled by another 30 years of the same. And more racial preferences, forever, are just about the only remedies that the academics, the NAACP, and many in the media have to prescribe.
The ascent of Obama is the best hope for focusing the attention of black Americans on the opportunities that await them instead of on the oppression of their ancestors.
"America, while still flawed in its race relations, ... is now the least racist white-majority society in the world; has a better record of legal protection of minorities than any other society, white or black; [and] offers more opportunities to a greater number of black persons than any other society, including all those of Africa." So said Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson, an African-American of liberal-leaning political views, in 1991.
That's why the number (more than 700,000) of Africans since 1990 who have voted with their feet for America as the land of opportunity, by immigrating, exceeds the number (500,000) who arrived in chains during centuries of slavery. That's why the CEOs of AOL-Time Warner, American Express, and Merrill Lynch are black, as are the current and immediate past secretaries of State.
And that's why a half-black, half-white, all-American achiever named Barack Obama could be the next president. "In no other country on earth is my story even possible," as Obama said at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
What of Obama's limited political experience at the national level? He has more than did another presidential candidate from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln. And he has shown a remarkable capacity to appreciate the legitimate arguments for all sides on every issue, a capacity that transcends his down-the-line liberal voting record. He was elected president of the Harvard Law Review because the conservative minority who tipped the balance thought that the liberal Obama would be fair to their views. They were not disappointed.
Obama has also demonstrated deep understanding of the roots of the racial and political polarization that he seeks to transcend with his consensus-building style. Consider his remarks at a town meeting in Rockford, Ill., last fall. Reported Time magazine's Joe Klein: "He moves through some fairly arcane turf, talking about how political gerrymandering has led to a generation of politicians who come from safe districts where they don't have to consider the other side of the debate, which has made compromise—and therefore legislative progress—more difficult."
Obama did not mention the victimologist leadership of the Congressional Black Caucus. But as he well knows, the racial gerrymandering that guarantees most of these members safe seats in black-dominated, Democratic districts, while ensuring conservative Republican dominance of neighboring districts, is a big part of the polarization problem.
Obama also understands the spirit that must infuse any solution to racial and political polarization. "There's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America," Obama said in his 2004 convention speech. "There's not a black America, and white America, and Latino America, and Asian America; there's the United States of America."