Monday, February 05, 2007

What Does Barack Obama Have to Do to Prove That He’s a ‘Mainstream’ American?

Deborah Mathis,

Which word in the following now-infamous comment got Joe Biden in trouble last week?

“You’ve got the first sort of mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” Delaware’s senior senator said to the New York Observer, explaining the appeal of fellow Democrat Barack Obama. “That’s a storybook, man.”

The dust-up has been over, variously, “first,” “articulate” and “clean.”

What about the other black Americans who have run for president -- New York Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm in 1972, Jesse Jackson in 1984; Alan Keyes in 1996; Al Sharpton and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun in 2004? Weren’t they articulate? weren’t they clean?

Biden’s statement implies that they weren’t in his view, hence the thunderstorm surrounding “first.”

But, people who know Biden and his record dismiss the idea that he had any disparaging thoughts in his head when he said what he did. Obama is articulate, though you have to wonder why that was outstanding enough. And he is clean, as in untainted by scandal and unencumbered by dirty laundry. It says something that the one attempt to smear him was a half-baked report by conservative-leaning, Republican-coddling news outfits intimating that Obama got some hate-America indoctrination in his youth. Those stories hung on for a couple of days, were debunked and died.

And “first”? Truth be told, Obama is the first black American to run for president with no ties to an anti-establishment movement or civil disobedience, accepted largely for “the content of his character” rather than having to fight his way through a thicket of stereotypes. It’s not their fault that black people of a certain age didn’t have that advantage. For Obama to be the first “mainstream African-American” candidate after 400 years of racial cohabitation is a deserved indictment of the society.

The one part of Biden’s precarious statement I can’t explain is “sort of.” How in the world can Barack Obama rate only as “sort of” mainstream?

Undergraduate school at Occidental and Columbia; law school at Harvard, where he was president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review; a lecturer at the University of Chicago; a duly elected member of the Illinois State Senate; now a member of the world’s greatest deliberative body; a husband and father of two.

What must he do -- show his Sam’s Club card to prove his mainstream bona fides?

Obama not only swims in the American mainstream; it could be said that he resides in its deep end. But because he has not had the same struggle as the black men and women who preceded him in the presidential arena, some folks eye Obama warily. “Is he black enough?” is being whispered from corner to corner.

Lest we forget, Obama is the embodiment of what the movement has been about. Hell has been raised, blood has been shed, tears have been spilled, nights have been lost in jail, and hope -- Lord, hope -- has been kept alive for this very event: That one day someone would be able to seize an opportunity from the inside rather than to beat down the door.
Barack Obama is black and mainstream. No sort of about it.

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