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
Whether or not Barack Obama's bid for the White House ultimately
succeeds, it has already demolished the canard that :country-regionAmerica
will not elect a black president. His impressive win over
Hillary Clinton in the :StateIowa 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; :StateAlaska with 75 percent.
Idaho :State 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 :country-regionAmerica ."
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
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 :CityNew 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
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.
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