Monday, September 8, 2008

Can Obama convince voters he's an Omni-American?

By DeWayne Wickham

At its core, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign is a political test of Albert Murray’s belief in the Omni-American.

With two months to go before the election, Obama’s run for the White House is already the most successful political race a black candidate has undertaken in the United States. By winning the nomination of the Democratic Party he has reached a higher rung of the ladder of American opportunity than did Frederick Douglass or Booker T. Washington; Mary McLeod Bethune or Shirley Chisholm; Martin Luther King Jr., or Jesse Jackson, Sr.

The roots of Obama’s White House campaign are firmly planted in the soil that Murray, the brilliant literary and social critic, alluded to in his 1970 book, “The Omni-American.” This blistering assessment of America’s racial divide downplays the importance of race. “For all of their traditional antagonisms and obvious differences, the so-called black and so-called white people of the United States resemble nobody else in the world so much as they resemble each other,” Murray wrote.

But not until now has much evidence emerged to suggest that Murray’s thesis can be applied to the tissue of America’s body politic.

Obama has tried to make his race an incidental matter, but it hasn’t been easy—despite his strong, white family roots in Kansas. In March, he was forced to confront the issue head on in the wake of some controversial and racially provocative remarks made by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the pastor of a Chicago church Obama attended for more than two decades.

In distancing himself from Wright, Obama cast himself as an Omni-American.

“I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveholders – an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.

“It’s a story that hasn’t made me the most conventional candidate. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts – that out of many, we are truly one,” he said in a nationally televised speech from Philadelphia’s Constitution Center. Now, in the closing weeks of the presidential campaign, Obama faces some more daunting tests. One is a not-so-subtle appeal to racial hatred; the other is a necessary outreach to black voters.

The first surfaced during the GOP convention when former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey told a group of USA TODAY and Gannett News Service reporters that white racism might undermine Obama’s efforts to win the battleground states of Ohio and Pennsylvania.

“The Bubba vote is there, and it’s very real…There’s an awful lot of people in America, bless their heart, who simply are not emotionally prepared to vote for a black man. It’s deplorable, but it’s real,” he said. It’s also something Republicans have nurtured with the race-baiting “Southern Strategy” they have clung to for four decades.

The other test relates to Jesse Jackson. With hundreds of thousands of blacks unregistered in the battleground states, Obama needs him to lead a major effort to get them on the voting rolls. When it comes to registering blacks, Jackson has no peer. But many inside and outside of the Obama campaign see Jackson as a link to the racially divisive past that Obama is trying to escape.

With the election hanging in the balance Obama shouldn’t be so myopic. A Jackson-led voter registration drive could help propel him into the presidency – and an Omni-American in the White House.

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