Come mothers and fathers throughout the land
And don’t criticize what you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’
—Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin’
Since declaring his candidacy on February 10, Senator Barack Obama has seen voters and pundits across the nation question the authenticity of his race. Stanley Crouch of the New York Daily News summarized the widespread questioning, noting that Obama does not “share a heritage with the majority of black Americans.” While factually correct in a purely genetic sense of the word “heritage,” the statement seems a bit out of the blue. Who cares?
A candidate’s Presidential qualifications are not dependent on whether he’s black, bi-racial or ancestrally-nonnative; they’re dependent on what he’s done with his life. Even if a voter’s highest national priority pertains to Civil Rights, he has no reason to be concerned with a candidate’s race; his concerns should be with what that candidate has done to help America rid itself of racial inequality. And so reading Crouch’s piece and the blogosphere that responded to it begs the question, “Why are we talking about this?”
The real reason that we’re questioning Obama’s race has nothing to do with a white mother, a Kenyan father or an ancestral distance from slavery. No, the real reason is more significant and more telling as to where contemporary America is on the fronts of the fight against racism. The real reason for the questioning of Obama’s race is that for the first time in American history, the phrase “viable black Presidential candidate” is not a paradox, but a reality.
A viable black Presidential candidate such as Obama surprises us not because we believe that blacks are inherently less apt or qualified for the job, but because it’s not what we’re used to; it’s not what we know. Giving widespread support to a black Presidential candidate is a boundary that until now we’ve looked at, but only from a distance. It’s a concept that until now we’ve considered, but under the premise that we’re only considering it. Like freeing the slaves, integrating classrooms, and sharing bathrooms and water fountains, accepting the normalcy of black Presidential candidacies is another step forward that America is in the process of taking. That step is almost complete, and it’s Obama who is leading America through the stride.
The vast support that Obama has received this early in his campaign is unprecedented for a man who wears black skin, regardless of his ancestry. It indicates not only that he holds the requisite qualities to push America forward, but that America is ready to be pushed.