Will Presidential Debate Rise Above Race?

A candidate's color should have no bearing on his credentials

To win his party’s nomination, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) will likely need to gain the support of African Americans. He will have to battle a slew of other Democratic contenders for this constituency, most notably Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), who has a considerable edge because of her husband’s popularity among black voters. However, one of the greatest challenges for Obama in achieving this objective is the sizable number of African American skeptics who have questioned his legitimacy within the black community. Simply put, they say he isn’t “black” enough.

Since he was born in Hawaii to a Kenyan father and white American mother and raised by white family members, some claim Obama can’t relate to the experience of most African Americans in this country. For example, New York Daily News pundit Stanley Crouch wrote, “Other than color, Obama did not–does not–share a heritage with the majority of black Americans, who are the descendants of plantation slaves.”

Obama has tackled such criticism head-on when he participated in the 42nd anniversary of the 1965 voting rights march in Selma, Alabama to commemorate Bloody Sunday. He spoke about his African grandfather, who was a servant in British-colonized Kenya. He told how the civil rights movement inspired American universities to offer scholarships to foreign students like his father, who had been a goat herder as a boy in his native country. Obama told the congregants, “So don’t tell me I don’t have a claim on Selma, Alabama. Don’t tell me I’m not coming home when I come to Selma, Alabama. I’m here because somebody marched for our freedom. I’m here because you all sacrificed for me. I stand on the shoulders of giants.”

Obama’s message appears to be gaining momentum among black voters. For instance, a CBS News poll revealed that more Democratic-inclined black voters were shifting their allegiance from Clinton to Obama. He currently leads Clinton in support among blacks, 44% to 33%. Former Sen. John Edwards has been holding steady at 12% since January. Moreover, Clinton’s overall support has eroded, dipping from 41% to 36%. Obama, on the other hand, has realized significant gains, jumping from 17% to 24%.
Although Obama’s numbers are inching ahead, Clinton has the backing of a myriad of black political leaders and businesspeople. Her supporters include Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), a congressional veteran who serves as chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. “There isn’t a Democratic candidate with more experience, intellect, and charm and who’s better known than Hillary Clinton,” says Rangel, who also encouraged Obama to enter the race.

Supporters such as Tony Award-winning actor Jeffrey Wright quickly come to Obama’s defense. “How does a guy for years advocate for civil rights on the South Side of Chicago and not address at least some of the needs of African Americans?” Wright questions. “We should support the candidate who speaks to the collective needs of black people. What we shouldn’t do is vote out of some vague, emotional loyalty.”

Obama doesn’t view his critics’ analysis as a personal attack,

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