Divides Obama Doesn't Bridge
A Commentary by Froma Harrop
In distancing himself from the heated remarks of his pastor, Barack Obama did as well as anyone could do in his position. The problem is his position, which is having sat in the reverend's pews for 20 years without thinking to pick up and leave.
The discussion of race in the Democratic contest -- as in American life -- runs along different tracks. Certain people can say certain things. When the wrong person crosses to a track he or she doesn't have a license to be on, all hell breaks loose. Such was the consequence of Geraldine Ferraro's remark that Obama wouldn't be where he is today in the presidential contest were he not black.
Obama is a gifted and brilliant politician -- and would be so if both parents were white. But serious political analysts do consider how race has helped this otherwise inexperienced candidate. Because Ferraro is white and expressed her opinion in an insensitive manner, she had to leave the Clinton campaign.
Obama's classy response to the former vice-presidential candidate's comments demonstrated his legendary political skill. He dismissed them as "wrong-headed" but not racist -- enhancing his reputation as a builder of bridges over the color divide.
But the Obama campaign hasn't always been as lofty in the game of who-may-say-what-about-race as its candidate.
The first contest in which race played an important role was the South Carolina primary. Obama used his race in appealing to black voters -- about half the Democratic electorate -- and who could blame him? Hillary uses gender when it suits her.
But while candidate Obama floated above the fray with his soothing style, his underlings trumped up charges against Clinton of hidden racism. The most ludicrous was the claim that she had said disrespectful things about Martin Luther King Jr.
The Obama camp had one credible rap against the Clintons. It was Bill's likening the Obama candidacy to that of the irritating Jessie Jackson. The comparison was offensive and grossly unfair, but use of the race gambit has hardly been limited to one side.
Obama's smooth flight over racial turbulence ended with the airing of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's tapes. By now, the public has heard the "God damn America" a dozen times. That, plus Michelle Obama's hard-edged remark about how her husband's campaign has made her proud of being American for the first time, has cut into the Obama race-transcending mystique. Hence the speech in Philadelphia.
Holding a tough hand of cards, Obama responded to Wright's outbursts with admirable finesse. He downplayed their outrageous, sometimes demented, nature by labeling them "divisive," a moderate word. He refused to disown his pastor. He couldn't. Doing so would have seemed craven after their long history together.
Given the calamity of slavery and Jim Crow, one must give slack to black anger. But there are limits, especially for an avowedly post-racial candidate.
We've had a situation where it's politically unacceptable to attribute Obama's success to race, but a minister may say that the government created AIDS to kill people of color and remain a candidate's spiritual adviser. Suppose Clinton's minister had awarded a lifetime achievement award to David Duke, as Wright had to Louis Farrakhan.
But for Obama, the most lasting damage of this affair may not be tied to race or religion but to class. Working stiffs will struggle to square Obama's close bond to a purveyor of racial grievance with his own golden existence. With four Ivy League degrees between them, half a million in income and children in private schools, the Obamas seem to be doing more than OK.
The clashing images of resentment and privilege are a divide that is hard to bridge.
COPYRIGHT 2008 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL CO.
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Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.
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See Other Commentaries by Froma Harrop
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