Of Barack Obama and Al Smith

The heavy seas that the Obama campaign is now encountering should trouble us all. It is utterly appropriate for a one-term United States senator to be questioned about the extent of his experience or about his grasp of policy. It is, however, profoundly troubling that all these years after the triumph of the civil rights movement and after the integration of millions of blacks into American life, Sen. Barack Obama’s race has become an issue.
Perhaps I am naive, but I thought race was passé in America.

I thought racial differences in America were now about where ethnic differences were four decades ago. In the 1950s and 1960s, when I was growing up in ethnically and religiously diverse neighborhoods in the Chicago area, I saw ethnic and religious rivalries mellow to the point that each of us admired and felt enriched by the distinctive ethnic traditions of our friends, whether they be Italians or Poles or Germans or white Anglo-Saxon Protestants or whatever. All these groups spiced up the melting pot and made America what it is, a diverse nation of peoples from all lands, adhering to timeless principles laid down by the Founding Fathers long ago.

This same agglutination of white Americans and black Americans has been going on for at least three decades. It explains the popularity of such figures as Oprah Winfrey and Colin Powell and of sports dominated by great black athletes. Of course, it also explains the growing popularity of Obama through the early primaries and caucuses — often in states where blacks compose a small minority, but where racial bigotry has evanesced.

Unfortunately, the politicians who would lead America from the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives have not been able to keep the false issue of race out of this presidential nominating process. In fact, I do not think they even tried to keep it out of the campaign. If they had spoken as stentorianly against making race an issue as they have spoken on other matters — usually matters of fleeting importance — Obama would not have become the racially divisive candidate that he is today. As things stand right now, I see him as the Al Smith of our time, the candidate from a minority background (in Smith’s case, Irish Catholic) whose defeat will make it impossible for a candidate of his background to run successfully for the presidency for years to come.

Worse, many blacks are going to be embittered, and racial rivalry will be a fixture of the American scene for a generation. Precisely whose fault this is I cannot say with complete confidence. Certainly our leading national politicians still could come together and denounce any playing of the race card. Yet they will not. You can be sure of it. For one thing, Democrats have kept their liberal and black base together by claiming that their policy differences with Republicans over entitlements and other domestic matters are the consequence of the alleged racism of white Republicans. It is a false charge, but it has helped the Democrats at the polls, even as it has made many blacks unnecessarily sensitive about their minority status.

There is another reason political leaders, mainly Democratic political leaders, will not in unison demand an end to the racial maneuvering of this campaign. There is apparently serious racial discord in the Democratic Party among the embittered, chip-on-the-shoulder, lower-class voters, and it has helped the Clintons. That is why Bill Clinton so brazenly tried to make Obama the black candidate. Before Clinton’s comparison of Obama to Jesse Jackson, race was not an issue in his campaign. After that, Clinton’s repeated references to the controversy he started and the addition of the Rev. Wright now have made racial background an issue.

How it all will end remains unknown, but one thing is for sure: Racial relations have been badly damaged, and the politicians are responsible for the damage.