Role of Race in the Presidential Race

America has come a long way since the dark days when slavery marred the continent. The journey to equality was not always a smooth one, and only in the last half-century have African Americans been granted their complete rights and freedoms. Now that they have these equal rights, they are taking their place to take advantage of their equal opportunities, but there still seems to be a glass ceiling prevent their further progress. White Americans still cite racial progress in many areas, while the reality remains that much of this progress is illusion.

With the success of Barack Obama’s campaign for president, there is a serious chance that he could become America’s first president that is not completely white. But, there are many who call the bi-racial candidate black, and this may display the quiet need for white Americans for a black leader, if only in name. In December of 2006, a feature in the New York Times asked the question if America was ready to elect the first black president in Barack Obama. Using Obama, and fellow leading Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, the article weighed the likelihood and history of women and African-Americans elected to office.

It showed that both women and blacks have made significant gains in winning political offices, but blacks have lagged behind in the their gains. While former vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro and former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson both cited that it is easier for women and blacks to seek office, they both state that it is easier for a white woman than for a black man to succeed due to the mere fact of cultural heritage (Nagourney).

Obama is different than many black politicians like Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton, in that he is a member of the post-civil rights generation and is not considered as polarizing. The Times article did mention Obama’s father, a native of Kenya, but had no mention of his mother. By emphasizing his status of African-American but distancing him from traditional black politicians, it appears as if there is a concerted effort to make him the face of black political culture. The idea of “white-friendly” blacks like Obama is not a new concept. Even within African-American culture there is debate on what it really means to be black.

While some blacks claim Ebonics is a legitimate form of cultural identification, prominent blacks like Bill Cosby have taken active stances against it and believes it hurts their cause. Television personality Oprah Winfrey is the richest black woman on the planet, and her accessibility to white America is largely the reason. It seems that white Americans prefer blacks that seem agreeable to white culture, whether a subtly racist preference or not. However, when one white presidential candidate attempted to pay Obama a compliment, it was taken more as an insult from the way he parsed it.

When he announced his candidacy for president, Sen. Joe Biden spoke of Obama as, “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy” (Nagourney). The media immediately pounced on his remarks as playing on stereotypes that blacks are neither articulate nor clean, as well as his dismissal of previous black politicians like Jackson and Sharpton. While Biden meant the remark as a compliment, one could hardly believe he would have said the same thing about Hillary Clinton, also a long shot and potential political pioneer like Obama.

The quiet, acceptable prejudice that exists in America is the same reason that people fail to acknowledge Obama’s multi-racialism. Unlike many previous black politicians, Obama is half white. It has been long believed by both blacks and whites that lighter skin blacks do better than darker toned blacks, and only recently this was brought up by a prominent athlete. Gary Sheffield of the Detroit Tigers was recently quoted as saying his former manager, the Yankees’ Joe Torre, treated black and white players on the team differently.

When the reporter interviewing Sheffield about the good relationship between Torre and the team’s most prominent black player, Derek Jeter, Sheffield remarked how Jeter is black and white and cannot be applied to the argument (O’Brien & Best). This prejudice from blacks against multi-racial blacks does not necessarily apply to the way whites view them. Jeter is one of the most popular athletes in America, as is Tiger Woods who is half-black, half-Asian.

However, both Jeter and Woods, especially, are portrayed in the media not as half-Irish or half-Thai, but black. While it is impossible to deny racism is at an all-time low in the America, it also cannot be denied that it still exists. The only difference is that it is dealt with differently, through gentrification and championing blacks that are white-friendly. Barack Obama may face an uphill battle in his quest to become president, but the decision of just what race he truly represents remains in the eye of the beholder.