Obama and Race

November 11, 2008

barack-obama-history.jpgBarack Obama could not run his campaign for the Presidency based on
political accomplishment or on the heroic service of his youth. His
record was too slight. His Democratic and Republican opponents were
right: he ran largely on language, on the expression of a country’s
potential and the self-expression of a complicated man who could
reflect and lead that country.

And a powerful thematic undercurrent of his
oratory and prose was race. Not race as invoked by his predecessors in
electoral politics or in the civil-rights movement, not race as an
insistence on tribe or on redress; rather, Obama made his biracial
ancestry a metaphor for his ambition to create a broad coalition of
support, to rally Americans behind a narrative of moral and political
progress. He was not its hero, but he just might be its culmination.

October, 2005, two months after Hurricane Katrina, Rosa Parks died, at
the age of ninety-two, in Detroit. Her signal act of defiance on the
evening of December 1, 1955, her refusal to vacate her seat near the
front of the Cleveland Avenue bus in Montgomery, Alabama–what Martin
Luther King, Jr., called the ultimate gesture of “I can take it no
longer”–was the precipitating act of the city’s bus boycott and the
civil-rights movement. For two days, her body lay in state at the
Capitol Rotunda, in Washington–an honor accorded only twenty-nine times
before. Then, on November 2nd, in Detroit, there was a funeral service
at the Greater Grace Temple Church. Thousands lined the streets to wave
farewell and sing the old anthems and hymns. Four thousand packed the
sanctuary. The service lasted seven hours.

“That funeral was so
long that I can hardly remember it!” Bishop T. D. Jakes, the pastor of
the Potter’s House, a Dallas church of thirty thousand congregants,
said. “Everyone was there!” Jesse Jackson, the Clintons, Al
Sharpton, Aretha Franklin, and a phalanx of preachers all paid tribute
to Parks. Bill Clinton reminisced about riding segregated buses in Jim
Crow Arkansas–and then feeling the liberating effect of Parks’s act. On
the street, a marine played “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes, and the
congregants sang “She Would Not Be Moved.”

Obama, the sole
African-American member in the United States Senate, had also been
invited to speak. As he sat in the pews awaiting his turn, he writes in
his book “The Audacity of Hope,” his mind wandered back to the
devastation of Hurricane Katrina: the news footage from New Orleans of
a body laid near a wall, of shirtless young men, “their legs churning
through dark waters, their arms draped with whatever goods they had
managed to grab from nearby stores, the spark of chaos in their eyes.”
A week after the hurricane, Obama had accompanied Bill and Hillary
Clinton and George H. W. Bush to Houston, where they visited the
thousands of refugees from New Orleans who were camped out at the
Astrodome and the Reliant Center. One woman told Obama, “We didn’t have
nothin’ before the storm. Now we got less than nothin’.” The remark was
a rebuke, Obama felt, to Donald Rumsfeld and other Bush Administration
officials who had given him and fellow-legislators a briefing on the
federal response to the hurricane; their expressions, he recalled,
“bristled with confidence–and displayed not the slightest bit of
remorse.” In the church, Obama thought of how little had happened
since. Cars were still stuck in trees and on rooftops; predatory
construction firms were winning hundreds of millions of dollars in
contracts, even as they skirted affirmative-action laws and hired
illegal immigrants for their crews. Obama’s anger, which is rarely
discernible in his voice or in his demeanor, ran deep. “The sense that
the nation had reached a transformative moment–that it had had its
conscience stirred out of a long slumber and would launch a renewed war
on poverty–had quickly died away,” he wrote.

And yet when Obama got to the lectern at Parks’s funeral he betrayed
no emotion, raised no words of protest. He was restrained and brief, as
if taking pains to say nothing to compete with the Clintons, who had
forged a close bond with the African-American community over the years,
let alone the older organizers, activists, and preachers. Obama was
still a relative stranger to the audience in Detroit.

“In terms
of operating in the space of African-American politics, people hadn’t
seen him much,” Mark Morial, a former mayor of New Orleans and the
president of the National Urban League, said. “They didn’t really know
who he was, where he came from, or what he was all about. You don’t
come in there as a senator and try to upstage anyone or abuse the
podium and give a speech that’s too good. He has to think, My presence
is enough. The people who worked with Rosa Parks–this was their time to

It was only on March 4, 2007, a few weeks after he
announced his candidacy for President, that Obama explicitly inserted
himself in the time line of American racial politics. At the Brown
Chapel A.M.E. Church, in Selma, Alabama, he joined older civil-rights
leaders and churchmen in commemorating the voting-rights marches a
generation ago. From the pulpit, Obama paid tribute to “the Moses
generation”–to Martin Luther King and John Lewis, to Anna Cooper and
the Reverend Joseph Lowery–the men and women of the movement, who
marched and suffered but who, in many cases, “didn’t cross over the
river to see the Promised Land.” He thanked them, praised their
courage, honored their martyrdom. But he spent much of his speech on
his own generation, “the Joshua generation,” and tried to answer the
question “What’s called of us?” Life had improved for
African-Americans, but “we shouldn’t forget that better is not good
enough.” Discrimination still existed. History was being forgotten.
Schools were underfunded, citizens left uninsured, especially
minorities. People were looking for “that Oprah money” but had
forgotten the need for service, for discipline, for political will.

In Selma, Obama evoked a narrative for what lay ahead, and in that
narrative Obama was not a patriarch and not a prophet but–the
suggestion was distinct–the prophesied. “I’m here because somebody
marched,” he said. “I’m here because you all sacrificed for me. I stand
on the shoulders of giants.” He described the work that lay ahead for
the Joshua generation and implicitly positioned himself at its head, as
its standard-bearer.

And yet Obama embarked on a long, exhausting
quest for the Democratic nomination, determined to avoid making race a
singular theme of his day-to-day campaigning. His issues were Iraq, the
economy, health care, the environment–issues with no identity attached.
But as he prepared for the Democratic Convention Obama began to feel
the weight of his historic distinction.

On August 28th, just
hours before his speech at Mile High Stadium, in Denver, Obama had been
rehearsing in a suite at the Westin Hotel. That night, he would appear
before more than eighty thousand people. Now his audience was three:
his political strategist, David Axelrod; a speechwriter, Jon Favreau;
and the teleprompter operator. The rehearsal was mainly an exercise in
comfort, in making sure that there was no awkward syntax, no barriers
to clarity. Late in the speech, Obama came to a passage paying homage
to the March on Washington, forty-five years earlier to the day, when
hundreds of thousands of people gathered near the Lincoln Memorial to
“hear a young preacher from Georgia speak of his dream.” Suddenly,
Obama stopped. He couldn’t get past the phrase “forty-five years ago.”

“There was a catch in his voice,” Axelrod recalled.

excused himself and took a short, calming walk around the room. “This
is really hitting me,” he said. Obama told Axelrod and Favreau that he
was coming to realize what a “big deal this is.”

“Usually, he is so composed, but he needed the time,” Axelrod said.

funny, I think all of us go through this,” Favreau recalled. “We’ve
gone through this whole campaign and, contrary to what anyone might
think, we don’t think of the history much, because it’s a crazy
environment and you’re going twenty-four hours a day, seven days a
week. And so there are very few moments–and I think it’s the same with
Barack–there are very few moments when he stops and thinks, I could be
the first African-American elected President.”

Long before he ever had to think through the implications, racial and
otherwise, of running for President, Barack Obama needed to make sense
of himself–to himself. The memoir that he published when he was
thirty-three, “Dreams from My Father,” explored his biracial heritage:
his white Kansas-born mother, his black Kenyan father, almost
completely absent from his life. The memoir is written with more
freedom, with greater introspection and irony, than any other by a
modern American politician. Obama introduces himself as an American
whose childhood took him to Indonesia and Hawaii, whose grandfathers
included Hussein Onyango Obama, “a prominent farmer, an elder of the
tribe, a medicine man with healing powers.”

As a young man, Obama was consumed with self-doubt, trying always to
reconcile the unsettling contradictions of his history. His parents
married in 1960, when interracial marriage was still prohibited in
almost half the states of the union. As Obama entered adolescence, in
Hawaii, his father had returned to Africa and started a new family,
but, at the same time, the boy was careful around his white friends not
to mention his mother’s race; he began to think that by doing so he was
ingratiating himself with whites. He learned to read unease in the
faces of others, the “split second adjustments they have to make,” when
they found out that he was the son of a mixed marriage.

they guess at my troubled heart, I suppose–the mixed blood, the divided
soul, the ghostly image of the tragic mulatto trapped between two
worlds,” he writes, with the wry distance of the older self regarding
the younger.

Obama’s mother was an earnest and high-minded
idealist, “a lonely witness for secular humanism, a soldier for the New
Deal, Peace Corps, position-paper liberalism.” With Barack’s father
gone, she emphasized, even sentimentalized, blackness to her son. She
loved the film “Black Orpheus,” which her son later found so
patronizing to the “childlike” characters that he wanted to walk out of
the theatre. She’d bring home the records of Mahalia Jackson, the
speeches of Martin Luther King. To her, “every black man was Thurgood
Marshall or Sidney Poitier; every black woman Fannie Lou Hamer or Lena
Horne. To be black was to be the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a
special destiny, glorious burdens that only we were strong enough to

As a teen-ager in Hawaii, Obama suffered less from
outright discrimination than from the sense that “something wasn’t
quite right”; he was put off by the white girls who told him about
their affection for Stevie Wonder, by the older white men who told him
he was cool. Surrounded mainly by white relations and friends, Obama
looked for a mentor. Holed up in his room and ignoring his homework, he
read James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and
W. E. B. Du Bois and tried to “reconcile the world as I’d found it with
the terms of my birth”:

there was no escape to be had. In every page of every book, in Bigger
Thomas and invisible men, I kept finding the same anguish, the same
doubt; a self-contempt that neither irony nor intellect seemed able to
deflect. Even Du Bois’s learning and Baldwin’s love and Langston’s
humor eventually succumbed to its corrosive force, each man finally
forced to doubt art’s redemptive power, each man finally forced to
withdraw, one to Africa, one to Europe, one deeper into the bowels of
Harlem, but all of them in the same weary flight, all of them
exhausted, bitter men, the devil at their heels. Only Malcolm X’s
autobiography seemed to offer something different. His repeated acts of
self-creation spoke to me.

“The Autobiography of Malcolm X” did not turn Obama into a black
nationalist or a street preacher, but it did provide a literary and
personal template: the story of the young black man who flirts with
dissolution and, through reading and determination, realizes his
potential. It is the template of many such books, including Claude
Brown’s “Manchild in the Promised Land.” “Junkie. Pothead,” Obama
wrote. “That’s where I’d been headed: the final, fatal role of the
young would-be black man.”

Obama, of course, never suffered
like the young Malcolm Little or Claude Brown; Honolulu in the
seventies was not Lansing in the thirties or Harlem in the forties. But
the key difference was in the nature of his quest for identity. To be
black was, for him, as much a matter of aspiration as of inheritance.
It was an identity he had to seek out and master. When Obama shared his
adolescent reading with some African-American friends, one told him, “I
don’t need no books to tell me how to be black.” From then on, Obama
decided to keep his explorations to himself and “disguise my feverish

Sometimes, as one reads “Dreams from My Father,” it’s
hard to know where the real angst ends and the self-dramatizing of the
backward glance begins, but there is little doubt that Obama was at
sea, particularly where race was concerned. To ease that pain, to
“flatten out the landscape of my heart,” he would do what kids
sometimes do: he drank, he smoked grass, and, in his unforgettably
offhand formulation, he did “a little blow” when he “could afford it.”

Obama did learn in those days was the strategic benefit of a calm and
inviting temperament. When his mother came to his room one day,
prepared to remonstrate with him about his weak performance in school
and the hazy direction that his life was taking, he flashed her, as he
recalls, “a reassuring smile and patted her hand and told her not to
worry.” He didn’t get his back up, he didn’t yell. People, he was
learning, “were satisfied as long as you were courteous and smiled and
made no sudden moves. They were more than satisfied; they were
relieved–such a pleasant surprise to find a well-mannered young black
man who didn’t seem angry all the time.”

The historian David
Levering Lewis, who has written biographies of King and Du Bois, told
me that after reading Obama’s books he had the sense of a young man
almost alone in the world, trying to find a place. “The orphanage of
his life compels him to scope out possibilities and escape hatches,” he
said. “This very smart mother was somewhat absent, and certainly the
father was, and the grandfather marched with Patton, but he was not a
rock. Obama is in the world almost solo and he learns to negotiate.”

he arrived, in 1979, as a freshman at Occidental College, in Los
Angeles, Obama wanted “to avoid being mistaken for a sellout.” He hung
around with the “politically active black students, the foreign
students . . . the Marxist professors and structural feminists and
punk-rock performance poets.” At night, in the dorms, they “discussed
neocolonialism, Frantz Fanon, Eurocentrism, and patriarchy. . . . We
were alienated.”

After Obama graduated from Columbia (he’d transferred for his last
two years), he set out for Chicago, in search of work as a community
organizer. He would lie awake at night thinking of “romantic images” of
the civil-rights movement, the “grainy black and white” scenes
unspooling in his mind. He sought admission somehow into that distant
world of seriousness and commitment–a connection to “the Moses
generation.” He craved authentic experience, a sense of service and
belonging, and a racial identity: “That was my idea of organizing. It
was a promise of redemption.”

Methodically, Obama went about
meeting important members of the older generations on the South Side,
African-American elders who could advise him and, subtly, approve of
him. Timuel Black, an activist in his late eighties who has published
oral histories of the black migration from the South, told me that
Obama came to him eager to soak up everything he could about the
politics, churches, and neighborhoods of the city. But, even as Obama
found his way as a community organizer, working for tenants’ rights and
job training at the Altgeld projects, on the far South Side, he never
quite stopped seeing in the faces of young black men reminders of his
own past, and the direction he might have taken:

of them could be me. Standing there, I try to remember the days when I
would have been sitting in a car like that, full of inarticulate
resentments and desperate to prove my place in the world. . . . The
swagger that carries me into a classroom drunk or high, knowing that my
teachers will smell beer or reefer on my breath, just daring them to
say something.

Obama went to Harvard Law School, where he became the first African-American elected president of the Law Review.
Studious, disciplined, ambitious, Obama received, in 1991, the honor of
being asked to speak at the annual banquet of the Harvard Black Law
Students Association, an occasion at which a prominent judge or
attorney is usually featured. One professor at the banquet, Randall
Kennedy, was impressed by the deference that a ballroom of students, so
full of sap and self-regard, paid the young man.

As Kennedy
followed Obama’s career, he was struck by the uniqueness of his
background and how it may have affected both his temperament and his
public appeal. “He’s operating outside the precincts of black America,”
Kennedy said. “He is growing up in Hawaii, for God’s sake. And then,
when he comes to the mainland and tries to find his way, he has to work
at it. He does have to go find it. He is not socialized like other
people. I can’t help thinking that he might have thought it a burden at
the time, but maybe some of the things he missed out on were a benefit
to miss out on. For one thing, he didn’t absorb the learned responses,
the learned mantras and slogans, the learned resentments of that time
that one got in college.”

David Levering Lewis told me that he read the memoir as if Obama were a
densely layered character in a coming-of-age novel. “To say he is
constructing himself sounds pejorative, but he is open to the world in
a way that most Americans have not had the opportunity to be,” Lewis
said. “That is something that outsiders have to do. But, as he evolves,
the African-American pathway is the pathway to service, to success, and
to a more complete self-definition.”

For Obama, the politics of race took on a less
abstract cast once he returned to Chicago and settled in Hyde Park,
with his wife, Michelle. Hyde Park and Kenwood make up a South Side
neighborhood that takes in the University of Chicago and is as
distinctive as George H. W. Bush’s Greenwich, Connecticut. By the
middle of the twentieth century, the area was home to Jews (some of
whom came from Europe to escape anti-Semitism) and blacks who were
starting to enter the middle class. The neighborhood today is racially
mixed: of the forty-nine thousand residents, fifty-two per cent are
black, thirty per cent are white, nine per cent are Asian, four per
cent are Hispanic.

A measure of self-regard is also part of the
Hyde Park atmosphere. “It’s a magical community,” John Rogers, Jr., a
close friend of the Obamas, who runs Ariel Investments, said. “When you
remember that there have been just three African-American senators
since Reconstruction, it tells you something that two of them, Barack
and Carol Moseley Braun, came from Hyde Park.” (The third, Edward
Brooke, was from Massachusetts.) Louis Farrakhan’s
stained-glass-fronted house is a few blocks from Obama’s, and so is
Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition
headquarters. Muhammad Ali once lived nearby. “Hyde Park is the real
world as it should be,” Obama’s friend and adviser Valerie Jarrett told
Peter Slevin, of the Washington Post. “If we could take Hyde
Park and we could help make more Hyde Parks around the country, I think
we would be a much stronger country.”

Over all, the
neighborhood is liberal–Jesse Jackson says that the area has been a
nexus of “social activism and also progressive, multiracial,
multicultural politics for as long as I’ve been here, since 1964”–and
that quality has made it an occasional target for conservative disdain.
An article in The Weekly Standard observed that Obama’s
neighbors looked “like NPR announcers.” And yet there are complexities
within liberal Hyde Park–especially in the black community–that have
played a role in Obama’s evolving political life.

Running in 1996
from the South Side, Obama won a seat in the Illinois State Senate, but
three years later, when he tried to take on Bobby Rush, a four-term
Democratic incumbent in the House of Representatives, Obama got a
lesson in Chicago politics. The First Congressional District included
not only Hyde Park but far less affluent neighborhoods like Englewood
and Woodlawn. Rush, a former leader of the Black Panthers in Chicago,
made easy work of Obama. Jesse Jackson said that Rush “was and is an
icon in the civil-rights movement” in Chicago and had established
himself, first on the City Council and then in Congress. “So this
relatively new guy, moving on him, didn’t sit well,” said Jackson, who
supported Rush.

Rush did not hesitate to mock Obama as inauthentic–and, by
inference, insufficiently black. “He went to Harvard and became an
educated fool,” Rush told the Chicago Reader during the
campaign. “Barack is a person who read about the civil-rights protests
and thinks he knows all about it.” State Senator Donne Trotter, who was
also vying for Rush’s seat, told the same reporter that “Barack is
viewed in part to be the white man in blackface in our community. You
have only to look at his supporters. Who pushed him to get where he is
so fast? It’s these individuals in Hyde Park, who don’t always have the
best interest of the community in mind.” Rush’s tactics were brutal,
and they were effective: Obama lost the primary by thirty points.

was completely mortified and humiliated,” Obama told me while he was
still only considering a Presidential run. “The biggest problem in
politics is the fear of loss. It’s a very public thing, which most
people don’t have to go through. Obviously, the flip side of publicity
and hype is that, when you fall, folks are right there, snapping away.”

essential part of what revived Obama’s political prospects was a Hyde
Park-centered circle of younger black businesspeople who held him
close, advised him, and helped to support his future campaigns. The
circle includes John Rogers, Jr., who knew Michelle Obama’s brother,
Craig, when they played basketball at Princeton; Valerie Jarrett, the
former board chairman of the Chicago Stock Exchange and a close
adviser; and Marty Nesbitt, the president of the Parking Spot, a major
parking-lot company.

“We all have dinner together, we take
vacations together, play golf and basketball together, our kids go to
school together,” Nesbitt told me. It is a circle linked in the way of
boomer and post-boomer American élites: intersecting paths at top
colleges and professional schools; crisscrossing wires of mutual
professions, friends, charities, Little League teams. Nesbitt’s wife,
Anita Blanchard, is an obstetrician who delivered Obama’s two
daughters. Michelle Obama worked for Jarrett. And so on. The business
friends saw in Obama the kind of intelligent, idealistic, yet moderate
politician who represented them in a way that the older generation of
Hyde Park leaders no longer could. They introduced Obama to the
Commercial Club crowd downtown, to more friends of means beyond
Chicago. This was part of what Obama was talking about when he referred
to “the Joshua generation”–the successful, talented, networking, and,
in many cases, idealistic daughters and sons who benefitted from
struggles that they could not have known firsthand.

In 2004, Obama won a seat in the U.S. Senate. By the time he
published his second book, “The Audacity of Hope,” two years later,
he’d been a sensation as the keynote speaker at the Democratic
Convention and sparked talk of a Presidential run. “Audacity” is a more
conventional and careful book than “Dreams from My Father.” It is a
largely programmatic text, a reasoned manifesto rather than a memoir,
but it does manage to reveal that Obama’s sense of identity had
broadened and found its level; he presents himself as a mature man
settled on a sense of mission. He writes that he has known the slights
experienced by any black man in America–the couple who toss him the
keys outside a restaurant, thinking that he is the valet; the police
car that pulls him over for no reason–and is under no illusion that a
“post-racial” world is imminent. And yet he also sees the profound
Americanness of his complex origins, even their political potency.

the child of a black man and a white woman,” he writes, “I’ve never had
the option of restricting my loyalties on the basis of race, or
measuring my worth on the basis of tribe.” His was not a typical
African-American identity or experience, but it described someone who
could conceive of becoming President of the United States.

Despite the small number of African-Americans
holding office since Reconstruction in districts and states where
blacks were not in a majority, there has always been talk–at times
derisive or farcical; at times quixotic, even messianic–of a black
President. As early as 1904, George Edwin Taylor, a newspaperman born
in Arkansas, accepted the nomination of the all-black National Liberty
Party to run, but even much later in the century the prospect of a
black Presidency was almost always a discussion held in the spirit of
dreaming. “We’d wonder, How long?” Martin Luther King’s press secretary
in Chicago, Don Rose, recalled in an echo of the old movement chant,
“How long? Not long!” In 1967, members of the National Conference for
New Politics tried to persuade King to run on a national ticket with
Benjamin Spock. King refused, knowing that he would never win and might
damage his reputation in the process. Since then, a number of black men
and women have run, but none with serious prospects of winning and a
few for purely symbolic reasons: among them were the comedian and
writer Dick Gregory and the Black Panther Party leader Eldridge
Cleaver, in 1968; the Brooklyn congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, in 1972;
King’s follower Jesse Jackson, in 1984 and 1988; the conservative
activist and former diplomat Alan Keyes, in 1996 and 2000; and Al
Sharpton and Carol Moseley Braun, in 2004.

Some of those
candidacies had concrete results–Chisholm introduced the reality of a
viable black candidate; Jackson won a total of fourteen primaries and
caucuses in his two runs for the Democratic nomination–yet in the early
twenty-first century few blacks believed that a black candidate would
attract enough white votes to win the office.

The realm of popular culture, meanwhile, provided a shifting
register of the attendant yearnings and anxieties. In Irving Wallace’s
Johnson-era best-seller, “The Man,” Douglass Dilman, a black senator
from the Midwest, becomes President after the incumbent, the Speaker of
the House, and the Vice-President die. Dilman is full of self-doubt (“I
am a black man, not yet qualified for human being, let alone for
President”); he gets impeached and eventually wins acquittal by a
single vote.

In the seventies, Richard Pryor, when he was
hosting a variety show on network television, took on the subject as a
matter of comic flight: once a black man was in office, would he be
loyal to his race or to his country? Elected the fortieth President of
the United States, President Pryor opens his first press conference
calmly and with only a hint of racial pride. Before long, though, he
allows that he will consider appointing the Black Panther leader Huey
Newton as director of the F.B.I. (“He knows the ins and outs of the
F.B.I., if anybody knows”) and intends to get more black quarterbacks
and coaches into the N.F.L. It’s the same gag about black power and
white anxiety that’s at the center of “Putney Swope,” the 1969 Robert
Downey, Sr., film, in which a seemingly mild-mannered black advertising
executive is elected to chair the board of a white-run firm, whereupon
he throws out all but one token white guy, replaces the rest with
militant blacks, and renames the firm Truth and Soul, Inc.

the country could realize a black Presidency, it seems, popular culture
conceived it–first as comedy, then as commonplace. Morgan Freeman, as
President Tom Beck, prepares the world for an all-destroying comet in
“Deep Impact”; in “24,” President David Palmer, played by Dennis
Haysbert, wards off nuclear attack–and after he is killed, his brother
becomes President. In Hollywood’s imaginings, over the past decade, a
black President is no longer a fantastical premise; it’s an incidental
plot point, a casting choice.

In 2006, David Axelrod, a former political reporter for the Chicago Tribune
who had become a political strategist and helped run Obama’s Senate
campaign, began dropping hints around town. He told friends that, while
“usually the politician chooses the moment, sometimes the moment
chooses the politician.” John Lewis, the Georgia congressman, told me
how he had brought Obama to Atlanta three years ago for an event
celebrating his sixty-fifth birthday, and, as they walked the streets
together, blacks and whites would come up to Obama and tell him to run.
“And when I introduced him that night,” Lewis went on, “I said that one
day this man would be President of the United States.”

In November of 2006, at the offices of a Washington law firm, Obama
held one of a series of secret brainstorming sessions about his
chances. He had been touring the country, promoting “The Audacity of
Hope,” and, at each stop, he’d received encouragement. But could he
overcome the charge of inexperience? Could he challenge the Clinton
machine? After a while, according to the Times, Broderick Johnson, a prominent D.C. lawyer and lobbyist, asked, “What about race?”

replied, “I believe America is ready,” and little more was said on the
subject. Obama could not run a campaign like Jackson’s, which had
relied heavily on a black base and sought a “rainbow coalition” of
left-leaning ethnics, gays, and union members; instead, he would aim at
a notionally limitless coalition organized around a center-left

“I don’t think Barack’s candidacy was like any other
candidacy,” Axelrod said. “He was the first African-American to come
along as a legitimate contender whose candidacy was viewed in the
broadest terms.” In his Senate race, Obama had campaigned hard and
successfully in southern-Illinois towns nearer to Little Rock than to
Chicago, and in white areas of northwest Chicago where Harold
Washington had been booed in 1983, when he first ran for mayor. “Barack
would come back from these white towns and say, ‘They’re just like my
grandparents from Kansas,’ ” Axelrod said. “That’s one of his gifts:
there is no room he walks into where he doesn’t feel comfortable and
make the people feel that way. It’s both his personality and his
background–one contributes to the other. There’s no doubt that being
biracial contributes to a sense that he doesn’t compartmentalize people
by race or ethnicity or background.”

Even black leaders who were
initially wary of him came to recognize his advantages. “His background
helped,” Al Sharpton said. “He had a primary understanding of peoples
that we may not have had. He could meet with me and then with a
representative from Kansas and understand the nuances as well as the
content of both conversations.”

On January 21, 2007, Obama
attended the N.F.C. championship game between the Chicago Bears and the
New Orleans Saints, at Soldier Field, in Chicago. Invited to the suite
of Linda Johnson Rice, the chairman and C.E.O. of Ebony, Obama
mingled with other guests, including Mark Morial. Obama admitted that
he was thinking about running for President–by then an open secret–and,
when Morial asked him what his plan was, Obama said that he had to win
the caucus in Iowa, an almost entirely white state. “If I do that, I’m
credible,” he said.

Three weeks later, on the steps of the Old
State Capitol building in Springfield, Illinois, where Abraham Lincoln
began his 1858 Senate campaign, Obama announced his candidacy,
admitting to “a certain audacity” in his venture. He hardly mentioned
race in his speech except in the context of Lincoln and his struggle to
unite a divided nation.

Axelrod, who had been the successful strategist for black mayoral
candidates in Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Cleveland,
became Obama’s chief strategist. Most crucial, Axelrod had been the
guiding hand for Deval Patrick, who grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes
housing projects, on the South Side of Chicago, and who, in 2006, won
election as the first African-American governor of Massachusetts.
Axelrod was not a believer in the modish talk of “post-racial”
politics, but he was convinced that times had changed–“barriers were
breaking down.”

In a gesture that signalled that Obama was
going to be a cautious and highly disciplined candidate, not least on
race, he and his advisers decided to disinvite Jeremiah Wright, his
friend and pastor at the Trinity United Church of Christ, on the South
Side, from delivering the invocation. Wright is a pivotal character in
“Dreams from My Father,” a welcoming elder who exerted a powerful
spiritual influence over Obama. He’d been essential to Obama’s
education in Christianity, in social issues, in race, and in the ways
of the South Side. Although few people knew yet about Wright’s penchant
for incendiary rhetoric in his sermons, he had already been quoted in
the press in ways that Axelrod and Obama knew might alienate voters in,
say, Ames, Iowa, or Manchester, New Hampshire.

Obama’s initial support did not come from African-Americans. There were
obstacles, especially, in the black establishment. “Barack came to my
kitchen,” Vernon Jordan, an attorney who had been president of the
National Urban League and became a close adviser and friend to the
Clintons, said. “My wife, Ann, and I gave him his first fund-raiser in
D.C. when he ran for the Senate. He came to my house, and we had this
long four-hour dinner, and I said, ‘Barack, I am an old Negro who
believes that to everything there is a season–and I don’t think this is
your season.’ I was so wrong. Anyway, I said, ‘If you do run, as I
think you will, I will be with Hillary. I am too old to trade
friendship for race. But, if you win, I will be with you.’ ”

the early days of the primary campaign, Clinton led Obama among blacks
by more than twenty points. “They didn’t know him, a), and, b), they
thought it was a long shot,” Jesse Jackson said. “Black voters are
comparatively conservative and practical.” In 1984, Jackson had
struggled to get support from African-Americans who didn’t think he had
a chance. “Most of my relationships and labor allies went with [Walter]
Mondale,” he said.

With some exceptions, most civil-rights-era leaders and politicians,
including John Lewis and Andrew Young, were lining up behind
Clinton–out of loyalty and a belief that she would win. Lewis, for one,
could not imagine himself spurning a Clinton. In August, 1998, after
Bill Clinton went on television to explain his relationship with Monica
Lewinsky–an unprecedented humiliation–Lewis invited him to Union Chapel
on Martha’s Vineyard, to commemorate the thirty-fifth anniversary of
the March on Washington. “He didn’t want to come, but I convinced him,”
Lewis told me. “And, when the time came, I got up to introduce him and
said, ‘Mr. President, I was with you in the beginning and I will be
with you in the end.’ We both cried. . . . How could I abandon a friend
like that?”

The Reverend Joseph Lowery, a co-founder of the
Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a leader of the 1965 march
from Selma to Montgomery, told an audience in Atlanta in January, 2007,
that “a slave mentality” still haunted those African-Americans who
counselled Obama to wait his turn. He compared those who discouraged
Obama to the white ministers in Birmingham who told Martin Luther King
a half century ago that the time was not ripe for civil dissent.
“Martin said the people who were saying ‘later’ were really saying
‘never,’ ” Lowery said. “The time to do right is always right now.”

dilemma was plain. “These were people who knew Bill and Hillary and
thought well of them and couldn’t quite believe this young guy with a
foreign name had a chance to get elected,” the civil-rights activist
Julian Bond said. “After two Jackson campaigns, after Al Sharpton’s
campaign, after Shirley Chisholm, it seemed that these symbolic races
hadn’t delivered much. The promise had been that these candidates would
extract some kind of benefits from the winners and the black cause
would be advanced. That turned out to be less true than they had

Obama was disappointed that black leaders did not rally
to him in greater numbers, but in Iowa he was engaged in a much more
immediate project–to prove himself capable of winning white votes. And,
as he campaigned in the state, his appeal was less like Jesse Jackson’s
in 1984 and more like Gary Hart’s. His earliest support came from what
strategists call “better-educated, upper-status whites,” mainly
college-educated, younger people who appreciated his outspoken
opposition to the invasion of Iraq when he was still a state senator.

was extremely careful about racial politics. He spoke out on a
prolonged and ugly racial conflict in Jena, Louisiana, but did not join
a march. “If I were a candidate, I’d be all over Jena,” Jesse Jackson
said at the time. According to a South Carolina paper, Jackson thought
that Obama, in his restraint, was “acting like he’s white.” But
Sharpton, who led demonstrations in Jena, said that he came to
understand Obama’s thinking. “There are different traditions in the
African-American community, different styles,” Sharpton said. “Obama
doesn’t come out of the Martin Luther King or Jesse Jackson tradition
of activists. Obama comes from the mainstream electoral tradition, the
Doug Wilder tradition.”

On January 3, 2008, Obama won Iowa. His victory speech that night was emblematic of the subtle way that he would treat race:

know, they said this day would never come. They said our sights were
set too high. They said this country was too divided, too disillusioned
to ever come together around a common purpose. But on this January
night, at this defining moment in history, you have done what the
cynics said we couldn’t do. . . . We are one people. And our time for
change has come.

astonishing rhetorical move: Obama calls on the familiar cadences and
syntax of the black church. He gestures toward what everyone is
thinking about–the launching of a campaign that could lead to the first
African-American President. “This was the moment when we tore down
barriers that have divided us for too long,” he says. “When we rallied
people of all”–wait for it–“parties and ages.” The displacement is deft
and effective. We know that he means racial barriers–we can feel
it–but the invocation is more powerful for being unspoken. The key
pronoun is always “we,” or “us.” The historical fight for equal rights
comes only at the end of a peroration on national purpose:

is what led a band of colonists to rise up against an empire; what led
the greatest of generations to free a continent and heal a nation; what
led young women and young men to sit at lunch counters and brave fire
hoses and march through Selma and Montgomery for freedom’s cause.
Hope–hope is what led me here today.

civil-rights struggle is deftly recast in terms not of national guilt
but of national progress: the rise of the Joshua generation. What the
African-American left once referred to as the “black freedom struggle”
becomes, in Obama’s terms, an American freedom struggle.
African-Americans watched Obama’s victory speech in Des Moines with a
sense of wonder. Obama proved that he had a chance, and the black vote
started to migrate steadily in his direction. A coalition in the
Democratic Party, between antiwar whites and blacks–perhaps something
even wider than that–was now conceivable.

“Iowa was amazing and I
was there,” Cliff Kelly, a host on WVON, Chicago’s leading black
talk-radio station, said, laughing. “When Barack came out onstage with
his wife and two gorgeous daughters, all of them looking like they were
out of central casting, there were only five black people there in the
room. Them and me.”

Until that moment, how many African-Americans–how many
Americans–allowed themselves to believe that a black President was
possible? Had the world really changed that much? Still, some
African-American politicians believed that Hillary Clinton’s win, five
days later, in New Hampshire was proof that Iowa was little more than a
freakish victory in a caucus state. In South Carolina, a black state
senator, Robert Ford, told a reporter that Obama’s chances of getting
the nomination were “slim,” and if he were to head the Democratic
ticket “we’d lose the House and the Senate and the governors and
everything. I’m a gambling man. I love Obama, but I’m not going to kill
myself.” Just three days before the vote, a Mason-Dixon poll indicated
that, in the race against Clinton and John Edwards, Obama would get
only ten per cent of the white vote.

Obama won overwhelmingly in
South Carolina, taking about a quarter of the white vote and nearly all
the black vote. African-American leaders started to reconsider their
loyalties as their constituencies abandoned the Clintons. Compounding
the trend, Bill Clinton offended some blacks by suggesting that Obama’s
victory in South Carolina was like Jesse Jackson’s. “I had an executive
session with myself,” John Lewis recalled. He phoned Bill and Hillary
Clinton to tell them that he loved them but now he was going with
Barack Obama. “I realized that I was on the wrong side of history,” he

Don Rose, a Chicago political strategist who is
close to David Axelrod, is sure that the Obama campaign intended to
deal with race the way his client Jane Byrne dealt with gender in her
campaign for mayor, in 1979. “We never once said anything about her
being a woman,” Rose said. “I had her dress as plainly as possible. She
had bad hair, which had been dyed and dried over a lifetime, and she
sometimes had it fixed twice a day. We had her wear a dowdy wig to look
as plain as possible. We discouraged feminist organizations from
endorsing her. I didn’t want the issue of her being a woman to come up
in the least. We knew that women who would identify with her, the
gender-centric vote, would come our way without anyone raising it. You
don’t have to highlight what’s already obvious.”

It was not by
accident that Jackson, Sharpton, and other potentially polarizing
figures were seen so rarely on platforms with Obama during the
campaign. “The rule was: no radioactive blacks,” Rose said. “Harold
Ford, fine. Jesse Jackson, Jr., fine. But Jesse, Sr., and Al Sharpton,
better not.” Rose noted that Obama rarely referred directly to his race
in his stump speeches. “When Barack came back from Europe and he was
using that line about how he didn’t look like all the other Presidents
on American currency, his numbers went down,” Rose said. “He got
whacked and the campaign noticed. You don’t raise it, that’s the axiom,
and you let it work. The less said, the better.”

Sharpton, for one, says that he understood that Obama was “trying to
build a bipartisan, ecumenical coalition” and did not try to force
himself on Obama. In fact, when Sharpton first encountered him, Obama
was running for the Senate. They met before appearing at a session of
the black caucus of the Democratic National Committee and divided up
their rhetorical responsibilities. Obama said that he was making a
straight policy speech that night, and Sharpton replied, “Tomorrow
night, I’ll take care of the brothers and sisters.”

Once the
Presidential campaign accelerated, Obama explicitly addressed the
subject of race mainly when it was demanded of him. While he was
campaigning at a town meeting in Carson City, Nevada, a woman in her
late sixties named Christy Tews told him that she wanted to vote for a
Democrat who would win in November.

“Let’s get down to brass tacks here,” she said. “We have never elected a black man in our country.”

“Yes, that’s a good point,” Obama said, wryly. “I’ve noticed that.”

Obama normalized the question, somehow, and thus normalized the
prospects of his winning. “Will there be some folks who probably don’t
vote for me because I’m black?” he said to Tews. “Of course, just like
there’d be some people who won’t vote for Hillary because she’s a woman
or wouldn’t vote for John Edwards because they don’t like his accent.
But the question is, can we get a majority of the American people to
give us a fair hearing?”

A fair hearing became far more difficult
with the release, in March, of videotapes of Jeremiah Wright in full
denunciatory mode: “Not God bless America! God damn America!” Over and
over they played. The Clinton campaign wondered how its own
opposition-research operation had failed to uncover the tapes earlier,
when, they told themselves, they could have put a quick end to the
Obama campaign.

There was, of course, a context to “God damn
America.” Like Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, who fought the rise of Jim
Crow laws after Reconstruction and told his black parishioners that
they had every right to believe that God was a Negro, Wright saw
himself as–and Obama understood him to be–an inheritor of the prophetic
tradition, not an accommodationist, and hardly a politician. His
jeremiads were meant to rouse, to accuse, to shake off dejection. At
times, he called on the familiar metaphor of American blacks as
modern-day equivalents of the ancient Hebrews, a people marked by
terrible suffering and displacement. Wright was part of a tradition
well known to millions of churchgoing African-Americans. But that would
never be explained adequately on cable television. The campaign knew
that voters would hear those videotapes and be encouraged to wonder
about Obama’s associations and allegiances. Underneath his welcoming
demeanor, was he like a cartoon version of Wright, full of condemnation
and loyal only to his race? Would he bring the militants to the White
House like the executive in “Putney Swope”?

According to Axelrod, Obama had wanted to give a speech about race
in Iowa, “but the staff said it seemed like a non sequitur.” With the
Clinton campaign making good use of the Wright affair, however, Obama
had to act. It was plain that damage control, in the form of sound
bites and surrogate interviews, would not work. Obama decided to
deliver a major address on race, to be called “A More Perfect Union,”
on March 18th, at the National Constitution Center, in Philadelphia.

three days, Obama campaigned by day and then dictated and wrote the
speech until the early-morning hours. “I slept well, because I knew
that Barack knew exactly what he wanted to say,” Axelrod recalled.

his speech, Obama began by trying to broaden the country’s
understanding of the Reverend Wright’s activities as pastor of the
Trinity United Church of Christ: he was a former marine, he said, who
had built a large and passionate ministry that represented “the doctor
and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gangbanger.”
Obama disagreed with Wright’s most inflammatory and indefensible
remarks, which represented “a profoundly distorted view of this
country.” In his view, despair, the Biblically unforgivable sin, was at
the heart of Wright’s mistake. But he refused to condemn him outright:

can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no
more disown him than I can my white grandmother–a woman who helped
raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who
loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who
once confessed her fear of black men who passed her by on the street,
and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic
stereotypes that made me cringe. These people are a part of me. And
they are a part of America, this country that I love. 

was in the midst of a high-stakes rhetorical balancing act. He
empathized not only with his embittered preacher but also with the
embittered white workers who have seen “their jobs shipped overseas or
their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor” and cannot understand
why their children might be bused across town or why a person of color
has a leg up through affirmative action “because of an injustice that
they themselves never committed.” Obama signalled to all sides that he
heard them, that he “got it.” A white Southerner, even Bill Clinton,
could not dare to do that in a speech on race, and Jesse Jackson, whose
tradition had been more about the rhetoric of grievances and
recompense, never would. Obama’s ability to negotiate among the
sharply disparate perspectives of his fellow-citizens was at the heart
of his political success. Perhaps when people speak of Obama’s
“distance,” they mean just this capacity to inhabit different points of
view–a mastery that can seem more anthropological than political. Obama
allowed that black anger about past and present wrongs was
counterproductive; he also pointed to the way that American politics
had been shaped since the Nixon era by the exploitation of white anger
in the South and elsewhere.

Just as important as the message was the tone of the messenger.
Obama’s distinctively cool personality continued to serve him and his
candidacy. The civil-rights-era activist Bob Moses told me, “His
confidence in himself–and his peacefulness with himself–came through in
a way that can’t be faked. You are under too much pressure to actually
adopt a persona. You can’t do it under that pressure and not have it
blown away. People said he couldn’t afford to be the angry black
candidate, but the point is that he is not angry. If he were angry, it
would have come out.” Indeed, in the sixties, Moses, as he led
voter-registration drives in Mississippi, was himself known for those
same qualities–his intelligence and even temper.

“The speech
helped stanch a real frenzy,” Axelrod said. “Barack turned a moment of
great vulnerability into a moment of triumph. He said, ‘I may lose, but
I will have done something valuable.’ He was utterly calm while
everyone was freaking out. He said, ‘Either they will accept it or they
won’t and I won’t be President.’ It was probably the most important
moment of the whole campaign.”

Studs Terkel, who compiled oral
histories about race and the Depression and was, at ninety-six, a
Chicago institution, spoke to me a week before his death. Terkel said
that Obama’s political guile under pressure reminded him of Gene
Tunney, the heavyweight champion of the mid-nineteen-twenties, who used
craft, more than brawn, to defeat Jack Dempsey twice. “The guys on the
street, the mechanics and shoe clerks, saw Tunney as an intellectual,
but he won,” Terkel said. “Obama is like that. He’s one cool fighter.”

speech in Philadelphia did more than change the subject. It was daring
in its ambition, as it not only contextualized the Reverend Wright–at
least, for those who were willing to be persuaded–but also posed Obama
himself as the break with history, the focal point of a new era,
embracing America itself for all its tribes, for all its historical
enmities and possibilities. In effect, it congratulated the country for
getting behind him. Wright, Jackson–they were leaders of the old
vanguard. Obama would lead the new vanguard, the Joshua generation.

Obama has proved to be not only a skilled campaigner but a lucky one–a
requirement for victory. In July, good fortune, in the person of Jesse
Jackson, handed him an incident that would provide him some useful
distance from the past.

According to black leaders who know both men well, Jackson resented
that a younger, more moderate politician, a man with no experience of
the civil-rights struggle and with an unusual entry into
African-American life, was heading toward the office that he had twice
failed to reach. That month, Jackson was preparing to appear on Fox
television when he was recorded on an open mike criticizing Obama for
his “faith-based” comments about the need in some black families for
greater personal responsibility. Speaking sotto voce to another guest,
Jackson also said that Obama had been “talking down to black people.”
He made a slicing gesture with his hand and said, “I wanna cut his nuts

Obama’s talk about responsibility was the kind of thing
that black preachers across the country spoke of on Sunday mornings.
What seemed to irritate Jackson was the double discourse, the way that
Obama’s rhetoric was, by design, being overheard by white audiences
that might understand it not as brotherly sympathy but, rather, as
lofty reproach.

“Barack would go to various groups and spell out
public policy,” Jackson told me. “He’d go to Latino groups and the
conversation would be about the road to citizenship and immigration
policy. He’d go to women and talk about women’s rights, Roe v. Wade.
But he’d gone to several black groups, talking about responsibility,
which is an important virtue that should be broadly applied, but, given
our crisis, we need government policy, too. African-Americans are No. 1
in voting for him, because he excited people. But we’re also No. 1 in
infant mortality, No. 1 in shortness of life expectancy, No. 1 in
homicide victims.”

Fox played the tape on the air, and Jackson
had to apologize. This, in turn, allowed Obama to accept the apology.
Jackson looked petty and jealous, Obama looked magnanimous.

was shocked by the language, but I knew Jesse had the feeling that
Obama played to white Americans by criticizing black Americans, for not
doing enough to help ourselves,” Julian Bond told me. “Whether he
intended it, I don’t know, but I am sure Jesse provided Obama that sort
of Sister Souljah moment.”

Even many of Obama’s early critics
acquired a grudging respect for his strategic sense. The broadcaster
and author Tavis Smiley, who has a huge African-American audience, had
persistently criticized Obama for “pivoting” on issues like gun control
and the death penalty and had warned him against “selling his soul or
surrendering his soul” to get elected. And yet, Smiley told me, “Each
time Obama and I talked during the campaign, maybe a half-dozen times
on the phone, we aired our positions and differences, but it always
ended with him saying, ‘Tavis, I gotta do what I gotta do and I respect
the fact that you have to do what you have to.’ We confirm our love for
each other and then we hang up.” Obama did not represent the prophetic
tradition: he was not Frederick Douglass or Bishop Turner, Martin or
Malcolm. He was a pragmatist, a politician.

In 1995, Colin Powell, after his reputation was
burnished by the first Gulf War–and long before his reputation was
tarnished by the second–was uniquely positioned to become the first
African-American President. His reputation as a soldier and as an
adviser to Presidents had been unimpeachable, and his life story, as he
described it in his autobiography, “My American Journey,” was no less
appealing, if less tortured, than Obama’s in “Dreams from My Father.”
Powell put himself forward in the old-fashioned way: the man of
accomplishment “who just happens to be black.”

For a few weeks,
as his book sat atop the best-seller list, Powell discussed a run for
the 1996 Republican nomination with his family and his inner circle of
aides and friends. Bill Clinton, political tacticians told them, lacked
Powell’s particular strengths: his maturity, his solidity in foreign
affairs; in a center-right country, the scenario went, Powell might
beat the incumbent.

“Some in my family, in my circle of
acquaintances, were concerned that, as a black person running for
office, you’re probably at greater personal risk than you might be if
you were a white person,” Powell told me. “But I’ve been at risk many
times in my life, and I’ve been shot at, even.” Powell thought about
the question for a few weeks and then, he said, he realized, “What are
you doing? This is not you. It had nothing to do with race. It had to
do with who I am, a professional soldier, who really has no instinct or
gut passion for political life. The determining factor was I never woke
up a single morning saying, ‘Gee, I want to go to Iowa.’ It was that
simple. So the race thing was there, and I would’ve been the first
prominent African-American candidate, but the reality is that the whole
family, but especially me, had to look in the mirror and say, ‘Is this
what you really think you would be good at? And do you really want to
do it?’ And the answer was no.”

Since leaving the Administration
of George W. Bush, in 2005, after serving as Secretary of State, Powell
has showed his political hand with care, sometimes through background
interviews with favored journalists, sometimes through former aides.
But in the past year he could hardly avoid mention of the Presidential
race. Powell said that he had watched the campaign closely and met with
both Obama and John McCain within a week of each other, in June. “I
told them the concerns I had with each of their campaigns,” Powell
recalled, “and I told them what I liked about them. I said, ‘I’m going
to be watching.’ ”

Over the summer, Powell saw the campaign unfold and, increasingly,
he was dismayed by the ugly rhetoric on the Republican side. “It wasn’t
just John,” Powell said. “Frankly, very often it wasn’t John; it was
some sheriff in Florida introducing–I can’t remember who the guy was
introducing, whether it was Governor Palin or John–who said, ‘Barack Hussein
Obama.’ That’s all code words. I know what he’s saying: he’s a Muslim,
and he’s black.” Powell chose to accept a standing invitation from Tom
Brokaw and, on October 19th, he appeared on “Meet the Press.”

knew what my concerns were with respect to the Party and with respect
to continuing, without much change, the policies of the
Administration,” Powell said. His endorsement of Obama–precise,
eloquent–came as no surprise to McCain. “He knew all of my concerns,”
Powell said. The endorsement was, for some conservatives, like Kenneth
Duberstein, Ronald Reagan’s last chief of staff, “the Good Housekeeping seal of approval.”

the days that followed, the calls, letters, and e-mails that Powell
received were mostly positive. The Pakistanis in his local supermarket
appreciated what he had to say about the use of “Arab” or “Muslim” as a
pejorative. Some critics said that his endorsement of Obama was an act
of “disloyalty and dishonor.” Rush Limbaugh was only the loudest of the
right-wing voices to denounce him. Limbaugh felt no compunction about
saying that Powell’s only reason for endorsing Obama was race. “The
Rush Limbaugh attacks and other attacks from the far right generate a
lot of heat but not much light,” Powell said. The racist letters he’s
received are generally unsigned and with no return address. “But I’ve
faced this in just about everything I’ve ever done in my public life,”
Powell said. “It’s there in America, and it can’t be denied that there
are people like this.”

Powell said that Obama had run a
completely new kind of campaign when it came to race. “Shirley
[Chisholm] was a wonderful woman, and I admire Jesse [Jackson] and all
of my other friends in the black community,” he said, “but I think
Obama should not be just–well, ‘They were black, and he’s black,
therefore they’re his predecessor.’

“Here’s the difference in a
nutshell, and it’s an expression that I’ve used throughout my
career–first black national-security adviser, first black chairman of
the Joint Chiefs, first black Secretary of State. What Obama did, he’s
run as an American who is black, not as a black American. There’s a
difference. People would say to me, ‘Gee, it’s great to be the black
Secretary of State,’ and I would blink and laugh and say, ‘Is there a
white one somewhere? I am the Secretary of State, who happens to be
black.’ Make sure you understand where you put that descriptor, because
it makes a difference. And I faced that throughout my career. You know,
‘You’re the best black lieutenant I’ve ever seen.’ ‘Thank you very
much, sir, but I want to be the best lieutenant you’ve ever seen, not
the best black lieutenant you’ve ever seen.’ Obama has not shrunk from
his heritage, his culture, his background, and the fact that he’s
black, as other blacks have. He ran honestly on the basis of who he is
and what he is and his background, which is a fascinating background,
but he didn’t run just to appeal to black people or to say a black
person could do it. He’s running as an American.”

I asked Powell if Obama’s election would signal the rise of a
“post-racial” period in American history. “No!” he said. “It just means
that we have moved farther along the continuum that the Founding
Fathers laid out for us two hundred and thirty-odd years ago. With each
passing year, with each passing generation, with each passing figure,
we move closer and closer to what America can be. But, no matter what
happens in the case of Senator Obama, there are still a lot of black
kids who don’t see that dream there for them.”

A few weeks before Election Day, as Obama widened
his lead over McCain, I visited New Orleans. The last time I was there,
the city had been underwater. Since then, Katrina had obliterated what
remained of George Bush’s reputation and promised to shadow the
Presidential race of 2008.

Obama had pledged to run a
fifty-state campaign, but even his enormous war chest would not pay for
futility. Louisiana is rarely a scene of Presidential campaigning, and
the state went for Bush in 2000 and 2004. Nevertheless,
African-Americans in New Orleans–in Treme, in Mid-City, in the Lower
Ninth–watched Obama’s campaign obsessively. They were listening to Tom
Joyner, on WYLD; Michael Baisden, on KMEZ; Jamie Foxx, on Sirius. On
Canal Street, venders sold the same Obama T-shirts that I’d seen on
125th Street in Harlem. The most popular paired Obama and Martin Luther
King. Kids who normally would be wearing oversized throwback sports
jerseys wore Obama shirts instead. There were Obama signs in the
windows of barbershops, seafood and po’boy joints, and people’s homes.

night, I went out for a beer with Wendell Pierce, a New Orleanian who
made his name as an actor playing the homicide cop Bunk Moreland on the
HBO series “The Wire.” Pierce is in his mid-forties. His parents’
neighborhood, Pontchartrain Park, was washed away in Katrina, and he
has spent months trying to redevelop the area. Pierce picked me up on
Canal Street: he is built like a fireplug and has a double-bass voice.
We drove to Bullet’s, a working-class bar on A. P. Tureaud Avenue, in
the Seventh Ward. There we met Mike Dauphin, a Vietnam veteran, who sat
at our table for a long time talking about his childhood in Jim Crow
New Orleans, riding in the back of the bus and going to segregated
schools and working at American Can and U.S. Steel. When Katrina came,
he was sheltered first at a hospice and then, with thousands of others,
at the Convention Center, downtown, “where we had almost no water or
food for five days.” He could hardly wait to vote, and he was talking
in the same terms as so many older people around town: “I never dreamed
in my lifetime that I would see a black man as President of the United
States. I was a kid growing up under Jim Crow. We couldn’t drink out of
the same water faucet–but now it seems that America has changed.”

Yet you also heard from many people a great wariness, a kind of
defense against white self-congratulation or the impression that
somehow Obama’s election would automatically transform the conditions
of New Orleans and the country. In Treme, a neighborhood adjacent to
the French Quarter and arguably the oldest black community in the
country, I met Jerome Smith, a veteran of the Freedom Rides in Alabama
and Mississippi. These days, Smith runs youth programs at Treme
Community Center. On a sunny fall afternoon, we sat on the steps of a
former funeral home on St. Claude Avenue that was now operating as the
Backstreet Cultural Museum, an apartment-size collection of artifacts
from the black bands that played Mardi Gras and second-line parades.

winning the Presidency breaks a historical rhythm, but it does not mean
everything,” Smith said. “His minister did not lie when he said that
the controlling power in this country was rich white men. Rich white
men were responsible for slavery. They are responsible for unbreakable
levels of poverty for African-Americans. Look at this bailout today,
which is all about us bailing out rich white men. And there are
thousands of children from this city who have gone missing from New
Orleans. Who will speak for them? Obama?

“Obama is the recipient
of something, but he did not stand in the Senate after he was elected
and say that there is a significant absence in this chamber,
that he was the only African-American and this is wrong. He is no
Martin Luther King, he is no Fannie Lou Hamer”–who helped found the
Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, in 1964. “He is a man who can be
accommodated by America, but he is not my hero, because a politician,
by nature, has to surrender. Where the problems that afflict
African-Americans are concerned, Obama can’t go for broke. And the
white people–good, decent white people–who voted for him just can’t
understand. They don’t have to walk through the same misery as our
children do.”

Smith was angry but, as an activist contemplating
a mainstream leader, not entirely misguided. It’s inevitable that
euphoria will fade. The commemorations will fade. And what will remain
is a cresting worldwide recession, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a
crumbling infrastructure, a rickety, unjust health-care system, melting
polar ice caps–to say nothing of the crisis that comes from out of

Colin Powell said that, after a prolonged period in
which American prestige abroad has dwindled, Obama would have a
“honeymoon period,” which will give him an opportunity to “move forward
on a number of foreign-policy fronts.

“That is also something
that will perish or diminish over time, as he faces problems and
crises,” Powell continued. “If the excitement of the first black
President is great, it’ll diminish if he doesn’t do something about the
economy, or the economy worsens, or if we suddenly find ourselves in a
crisis. As Joe Biden inarticulately said the other day, ‘Something’s
coming along.’ No one knows what it is. . . . The next President will
be challenged, and how the President responds to that challenge will be
more important than what his race happens to be at that moment. But,
for the initial period of an Obama Presidency, there will be an
excitement, an electricity around the world that he can use.”

Forty-nine years ago, a young woman named
Charlayne Hunter graduated third in her class from Henry McNeal Turner
High School, in those days the most prestigious high school for
African-Americans in Atlanta. Charlayne wanted to be a journalist. The
University of Georgia had the strongest journalism program in the
state, but the university did not accept blacks. Segregation was not
something that teen-agers thought to battle in 1959, so Charlayne
started making other plans, applying to schools in the Midwest. Yet
something was happening in the South: sparked by incidents like Rosa
Parks’s historic refusal in Montgomery and the rise of young preachers
like Martin Luther King in Atlanta, a movement was developing. And so,
at the urging of some black leaders in town, Charlayne and Turner High
School’s valedictorian, Hamilton Holmes, challenged segregation at the
University of Georgia by sending in applications for admission. Their
applications were soon rejected. Then a legal team led by the
N.A.A.C.P.’s Constance Baker Motley, and including such young lawyers
as Vernon Jordan, championed their case, and, two years later, a U.S.
District Court judge ruled that Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes
were indeed qualified for admission to the University of Georgia and
must be allowed to matriculate without delay. They started school in
Athens in the winter of 1961. For months, they heard racist taunts as
they walked to class. Charlayne had bricks hurled through her windows.
But she and Holmes stayed on and they studied and made many friends,
and their case became yet another landmark of the civil-rights
movement, along with the marches in Selma and Montgomery–and the church
bombings and the beatings, and the murders of Medgar Evers and Martin
Luther King still to come.

Over the past four decades, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, as she has been known for many years, has worked at this magazine, at the Times,
for PBS, and for NPR, for which she is now a reporter living in
Johannesburg. She is sixty-six. When it was becoming clear a few weeks
ago that Barack Obama was on his way to winning the Presidency, we had
a series of exchanges about the election. Hunter-Gault was especially
impressed by the young Senator’s calm when the political and personal
attacks came; she said that it reminded her of what her own family, and
the families of so many activists in the civil-rights movement, had
instilled in their children as a code of behavior. “Try as I can, I am
unable to separate my civil-rights past from my present as a journalist
because both of my lives converge at this moment,” she wrote in one
note, “because without the movement I wouldn’t be where I am today, and
neither would Barack Obama. But because of the movement I was not one
of those who thought, Not in my lifetime, not least because I had seen
and felt the power of young people, with only their convictions as
weapons, tear down the walls of the decades-long system of segregation.
And for the first time since the movement I saw a new generation of
young people fighting in the same way for change that would bring back
the idealism that fuelled our struggles in the streets.” Her sense of
triumph, though, was not without anxiety. “Anyone who lived through the
civil-rights movement with the threats we were exposed to (in my case,
mobs outside my otherwise all-white dormitory shouting ‘Kill the
nigger’), and with the losses we suffered–Andrew Goodman, James Chaney,
Michael Schwerner, and then the ultimate loss, our leader, Martin
Luther King–and now to hear reports of people in Republican audiences
responding to political attacks on Obama with words like ‘Kill him’: we
would be living on another planet not to worry for the young husband,
father, and new President of the United States. But, like King, who
warned us that ‘I may not be there with you,’ we have to know that we
cannot be prisoners of our fears.”

Just a few minutes before eleven last Tuesday night, when Barack and
Michelle Obama and their daughters walked out on the stage at Grant
Park, and everyone around was screaming, chanting, and waving flags,
the long campaign came to an end. Joy was in the faces of the people
all around me, there was crying and shouting, but Obama seemed to bear
a certain gravity, his voice infused not with jubilation but with a
sense of the historical moment.

“If there is anyone out there who
still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who
still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who
still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer,” he

Obama had done it one last time. Having cast himself in
Selma twenty months ago as one who stood on the “shoulders of giants,”
as the leader of the Joshua generation, he hardly had to mention race.
It was the thing always present, the thing so rarely named. He had
simultaneously celebrated identity and pushed it into the background.
“Change has come to America,” Obama declared, and everyone in a park
remembered until now as the place where, forty summers ago, police did
outrageous battle with antiwar protesters knew what change had come,
and that–how long? too long–it was about damned time.

Source: The New Yorker

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: