Race's roles

Remember when Barack Obama wasn’t “black enough”?

All year the rap on Obama was that he wasn’t — that his supporters were white, better-educated Democrats with better incomes and that Hillary Clinton had a lock on the all-important black vote, ultimately a key to victory in the Democratic primary. A year ago Clinton enjoyed 60 percent of the black vote to Obama’s 20, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll. The New York Times reported on the disparity, asking, “Why are some black voters so uneasy about Sen. Barack Obama?”

The tide has turned now, and Obama commands the same majority Clinton once did. Blacks were Obama’s greatest doubters and didn’t come around until he won the opening contest of the presidential race in the 93 percent white state of Iowa. Recent polls show that, with 60 percent of black voters choosing Obama, those voters now believe one of their own could become president of the United States.

But with this, Obama is now dubbed “the black candidate.” Dick Morris, our fellow columnist and blogger, wrote this week that winning South Carolina could hurt Obama by creating a racial subtext. “Watching blacks bloc-vote for Obama will trigger a white backlash that will help Hillary win Florida and prevail the week after,” he said.

Morris is no radical here; his theory is the new conventional wisdom — that Clinton benefits and ultimately wins by appealing to Hispanics and whites after Obama’s South Carolina victory is defined by black support.

Let’s be clear: We are talking about a candidate whose message is completely inclusive, who has attracted new young voters, independent and Republicans to his coalition and who says nothing remotely divisive about whites, blacks or anybody. Just what, exactly, is the reason Democrats would turn from Obama now that he has black support: a fear that, as their nominee, Obama might show up to debate his GOP opponent wearing a Malcolm X T-shirt? Obama should be no more electable to white Democrats if he wins only with their votes than if he wins with both black and white votes.

Should Morris’s prediction come true, then we all must ask if Democrats are as racist as they would like us to believe Republicans are. If Colin Powell, a black Republican, were running for president and receiving more black support than his opponent, would his own party paint him as “the black candidate”?

African-Americans should not support Obama because he is black, just as women shouldn’t support Clinton solely because she is a woman. The Obama candidacy has divided blacks everywhere on the merits, because of the strength of Clinton’s candidacy. But black Clinton supporters should be worried about a “black candidate” narrative and the devastating setback that would result from white voters fleeing Obama.

As I watched the CNN debate Monday night the camera showed two members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) who support Clinton bursting into applause when she got her slum landlord comment out about Anthony Rezko. Sure, Obama started the back-and-forth with his “gotcha” comment about her serving on the board of Wal-Mart. But there was something telling about the CBC members’ delighting in the slap-down moment, especially since one of them had wavered long before choosing Clinton over Obama. When I spoke to that member earlier this year about the struggle of that decision, I could not have imagined any such delight.

After Clinton or Obama wins the party’s nomination, Democrats face a wrenching internal debate about what happened.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.