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Jeff Jacoby

The irrelevance of Obama's color

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jeff Jacoby
Globe Columnist / February 10, 2008

ON THE SUBJECT of Black History Month, I'm with Morgan Freeman, who described it a few years ago as "ridiculous" - for the excellent reason that "black history is American history," not some segregated addendum to it. The only way to get beyond racial divisions, he told Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes," is to "stop talking about it. I'm going to stop calling you a white man, and I'm going to ask you to stop calling me a black man."

Amen to that. The sooner we resolve to abandon the labels "black" and "white," the sooner we will be a society in which such racial labels are irrelevant. And what better moment to make such a resolution than this one, when white Americans by the millions are proving that the color of a person's skin is no longer a bar to anything in this country - not even the presidency.

Whether or not Barack Obama's bid for the White House ultimately succeeds, it has already demolished the canard that America will not elect a black president. His impressive win over Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucuses could perhaps be dismissed as a fluke, but after Super Tuesday there is not much left to argue about. Obama carried 13 states last week, and the whiter the state, the more imposing his victory.

He took Utah with 57 percent of the vote; North Dakota with 61 percent; Kansas with 74 percent; Alaska with 75 percent. Idaho chose Obama over Clinton by 80 to 17 percent.

Far from being a strike against him, Obama's color is manifestly a political advantage. Not only because black voters will vote for him with enthusiasm, but because tens of millions of white voters will, too. Countless Americans plainly relish the chance to prove with their vote that they are not tainted by racial bigotry. "I confess that I plan to be moved to tears," Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, has written, "on the day that I vote for a black man for the presidency of this stained and stirring country."

It isn't only liberals and Democrats who find Obama attractive. Among his supporters is Jeffrey Hart, a former speechwriter for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Peter Wehner, a former assistant to President Bush, writes in The Washington Post that Obama is "an appealing figure to many Republicans," because, among other things, his campaign is not based on racial grievance. "Obama, more than any figure in America," Wehner suggests, "can help bind up the racial wounds of America."

Obama is infinitely preferable to black candidates before him like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, professional racial activists whose stock in trade is the exploitation of black victimology and white guilt. As the first black candidate with a realistic chance of becoming president, Obama is understandably attracting record-setting levels of black support. But what makes his candidacy so plausible is precisely his appeal to whites - an appeal that would dry up were Obama to make racial identity the focus of his campaign. This is the interesting paradox at the heart of a campaign that is so often described as "transcending" or "going beyond" race.

Yet real racial transcendence will be achieved not when a black candidate's race is no bar to his election, but when it is not even an issue in his election. When the Morgan Freeman standard becomes the rule - when there are no longer "black" candidates and "white" candidates, because Americans will be indifferent to such labels - only then will our politics have truly gone beyond race.

Is the colorblind idea nothing but a dream? It need not be.

There was a time in US history when anti-Italian prejudice was so intense that the prospect of an Italian-American president would have been unthinkable. When 11 Italian immigrants were lynched in New Orleans in 1891, The New York Times described the victims as "sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins . . . a pest without mitigation." During World War II, thousands of Italian Americans were expelled from their homes, and hundreds of immigrants were interned in military camps.

Yet there was little if any attention paid to Rudy Giuliani's ethnicity during his recent campaign for president. No one blamed anti-Italian bigotry when his effort came to naught. For all intents and purposes, his Italian descent was simply not an issue.

The color of Obama's skin is irrelevant to his character and to his fitness for office. Would that its significance to his campaign were nil. No, we're not there yet. But there is no faster way to a society in which race doesn't matter than to stop talking and acting as if it does.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is jacoby@globe.com.

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