Running on Race: In One of the Country's Most-Watched Elections, Barack Obama May Be Defining a New Kind of Racialized Candidacy as He Tries to Become the Third Black U.S. Senator in History

Article excerpt

Barack Obama didn't intend to take over the meeting, but that's what ended up happening. It was a few weeks after he had rolled to a surprisingly wide victory over six rivals in the Illinois Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, and he was driving around the Chicago area thanking voters. That evening, stop one was a community meeting in a Baptist church basement on Chicago's West Side.

About 100 people were there, almost all of them black, listening to a discussion about a new investment in the mostly poor neighborhood around the church. Suddenly city councilman Michael Chandler burst in from the back of the room, leading Obama to the front while shouting: "Obama! Obama! Obama!" The energy level surged; people were on their feet applauding, cheering and, in a few cases, waving Obama signs.

Smiling widely, his tie already a little loose, Obama made the rounds, slapping skin and giving hugs. When the crowd finally quieted, he thanked them for their votes and started recounting how he had won with their help.

"People assume a lot," he said. "People assume white folks won't vote for black people. And they assume that black folks won't vote at all. Well, we went in with a different assumption, and that was that everyone has some common goals--that everyone should work, and when they work, they should get paid a fair wage. Every child should get a quality education. And every senior citizen should be able to retire with some dignity and respect." He received a standing ovation. People flocked around him asking for autographs.


An hour later, Obama was in an American Legion hall in suburban Evanston, addressing a firefighters' union. The 25 men (all but one was white) smoked cigars, sipped from beer cans and listened while Obama told them he appreciated their get-out-the-vote efforts, which had helped him take a whopping 89 percent of Evanston's vote. "I'm going to do my best to make you guys proud as the Democratic nominee," he said.

Afterward, union leader Dave Lipp explained that the group supported Obama because he had a pro-labor voting record and a plan to expand health care coverage. He emphasized that Obama's racial background had nothing to do with it. "He could have been black, white, pink or purple," said Lipp. "He's just a good guy and an excellent candidate."

The appearances exemplified the "Obama message." As he embarked on his Senate campaign last year, Obama told voters he was running to carry out his belief that people everywhere have intertwined concerns, interests and fates. "If a child on the [mostly black] South Side can't read, it affects me," he likes to say. "If John Ashcroft rounds up an immigrant, it affects my civil liberties."

People were captivated by his talk of race and class crossover, especially because it seemed to be an extension of his professional career and family history. Born to a black father and white mother, Obama grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia before attending Columbia University and Harvard Law School, where he was the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review. He worked as a community organizer, taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago and served a multiracial district in the Illinois Senate. During seven years in the legislature, he was known as a dependable progressive sponsoring laws that cracked down on racial profiling and broadened health care coverage for the uninsured.

Tiger Woods Politics

Observers say the success of his approach could signal the emergence of a new kind of racial politics.

"We're a country right now that doesn't know quite what to do with issues of race. We don't have a very good language for talking about race. And so somebody who's a kind of Tiger Woods-figure who can straddle different racial communities" will have a wide appeal to voters, said Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a political scientist at the University of Chicago's Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture. …