Maybe Some of It Is About Race, After All
During Barack Obama's youth, being black -- or half black -- was a vastly different experience than it is today. Obama was born in 1961, one year after four black students held a sit-in at a Woolworth's lunch counter to protest segregation. In the year following his birth, James Meredith became the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi, an act which led President Kennedy to deploy 5,000 troops to restore peace on campus.
Obama was three years old when Martin Luther King, Jr., was jailed following anti-segregation protests in Birmingham, Alabama. Later that year King went on to deliver his famous "I Have a Dream" speech to over 200,000 people marching on Washington in support of civil rights. The very next month four little girls were killed by a bomb as they attended Sunday school at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
The poll tax, which prevented many poverty-stricken blacks from voting, was abolished by the 24th Amendment when Obama was four years old. That same year President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a set of legislation that not only prohibited racial discrimination but gave the federal government the power to enforce desegregation.
As Obama prepared for kindergarten, blacks marching for voting rights in Selma, Alabama, were tear-gassed and beaten by police. Fifty were hospitalized in what eventually became known as "Bloody Sunday." The violence in Selma motivated passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that made it easier for southern black voters to register. Deadly riots swept through Watts, California, the day after the act's passage. In their aftermath, LBJ issued Executive Order 11246, which created affirmative action.
Obama's childhood saw other triumphs over racial discrimination, too. He was eight years old when the Supreme Court's decision in Loving v. Virginia struck down state laws prohibiting interracial marriage. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, President Johnson signed another Civil Rights Act prohibiting racial discrimination in housing. He was 10 years old when the Supreme Court's ruling in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education approved of busing as a way to achieve racial integration in public schools.
While much of these events were happening, Barack Obama enjoyed a childhood virtually unthinkable for most black children. After moving to Hawaii from Indonesia, where he'd lived with his mother, Obama gained a scholarship to the prestigious Punahou School, a private institution whose other notable students have included AOL founder Steve Case and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. Obama was the only black student in his class.
After his graduation, Obama attended Occidental College for two years, again on scholarship. He left very little in the way of a mark at this small, private college where he claims he first decided to enter public service. "When he surfaced as this national figure, I can only remember him wearing O.P. shorts and flip-flops," said Simeon Heninger, a dorm resident who lived near Obama.
From there he went on to Columbia University, again not leaving a mark. His senior thesis on Soviet nuclear disarmament is notoriously missing, leading many to question whether this paper -- which was written for a class about decision-making -- was actually scrubbed to protect Obama from political embarrassment. As just about everyone knows by now, Obama next attended Harvard University, a bastion of Ivy League elitism and the privileged upper crust. Again, he attended on scholarship but this time he did, in fact, leave a mark. After being named to the Harvard Law Review in his first year based on his grades and writing sample, Obama was named president of the Harvard Law Review in February 1990.
Almost immediately, he made the news for being the first black president of what's considered the most prestigious law review in the country. And make no mistake about it, from Obama's viewpoint his new position specifically served to single him out from other members of his race.
"The fact that I've been elected shows a lot of progress," Mr. Obama said today in an interview. "It's encouraging.
"But it's important that stories like mine aren't used to say that everything is O.K. for blacks. You have to remember that for every one of me, there are hundreds or thousands of black students with at least equal talent who don't get a chance," he said, alluding to poverty or growing up in a drug environment.
When he first announced his plans to run for the presidency, African-American columnists argued Obama's biracial ancestry and privileged background gave him such a different background that he "cannot claim those problems as his own -- nor has he lived the life of a black American." Yet somehow in his presidential bid, Barack Obama sidestepped the question of whether he is "black enough."
But voters aren't as willing to avoid the race issue. Indeed, among black voters it's becoming ever more important. George Mason University Professor Michael Fauntroy, author of Republicans and the Black Vote, explains:
Let's say Barack Obama wins, and 30 years down the line, you're a black Republican or black conservative, and your grandkid comes to you and says, "Did you vote for Obama?" It's going to be hard to argue why you didn't.
With this in mind, Obama's campaign has continued its effort to drum up the black vote even to the point of encouraging voting along racial lines -- an act they call "racist" when performed by whites.
It is a strategy which sadly appears to be working: the latest polls show Obama with a strong lead, and he's expected to carry 95% of the black vote. Even some black Republicans are planning to vote for Obama because of his race. Meanwhile, other black voters see the ultimate outcome as not a referendum on a candidate and his views, but upon themselves and their own personal experience, as well as their future:
Bev Smith, a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host, devoted her entire three-hour show Monday night to the question: "If Obama doesn't win, what will you think?"
"My audience is upset," she said in an interview. "Some people said they would be so angry it would be reminiscent of the [1960s] riots -- that is how despondent they would be."
For those who are shuddering over the riots at the GOP convention, it's hard not to wonder whether this election is as much about making history as it is about history repeating itself. Either way, one thing is clear: for having brought the country to this point, Barack Obama will finally get to have his own firsthand black experience.
But at whose expense?