By DeWayne Wickham
Long before Colin Powell proclaimed Barack Obama a “transformational figure,” the Illinois senator was already being seen as an otherworldly politician — a black man who might lead America out of the desert of its crippling racial divide.
I don’t know if Obama is a transformational figure, but I’m sure that this is a transformational time in the life of our country.
Obama’s meteoric rise from junior member of the U.S. Senate to front-runner in the presidential race has been widely viewed as a good omen. He’s arrived at the door of this nation’s highest office 60 years after another Democrat, Strom Thurmond, bolted the party to mount an anti-civil rights campaign for the presidency.
Obama is leading the White House race just 45 years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed in his historic “I Have a Dream” speech that blacks were still “crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.”
Obama’s on the verge of becoming this nation’s first black president only 16 years after Rodney King — the black motorist whose beating by police sparked the 1992 Los Angeles race riot — asked, “Can we get along?” Violence in that city took 54 lives and resulted in the arrests of 12,000 people.
Obama, who has run a tactically brilliant campaign, is believed by many to have moved America well beyond this ugly past, into a post-racial era. But I don’t think we’ve gone that far yet. Color issues still are too often viewed through one lens.
Back in August a headline in The New York Times asked: “Is Obama the End of Black Politics?” The story talked about how the nation’s successful civil rights struggle has produced a new generation of black politicians, who do not see their job as “speaking for black Americans.”
Unanswered by that article — and generally by analysts — is whether Obama’s rise also marks an end to the white politics? In many ways, the black politics of the past 40 years was a parallel universe to the one in which white politicians dwelled.
During much of this time white politicians championed the interests of their white constituents in much the same way as black politicians. But this truth is largely ignored by those who contemplate the post-racial era an Obama presidency might produce. That’s a myopic mistake Obama shouldn’t make if he wins the election.
Obama has been pushed to the edge of victory by an amazing transformation in the political life of this nation. He is the beneficiary of a shift across racial and generational lines. He leads Republican John McCain among voters of all ages, genders and educational levels.
If he wins, Obama’s biggest challenge will be to not undermine this unusual coalition by governing as an old-line politician — either black or white. This doesn’t mean he should ignore the legitimate interests of one group to placate the other.
Instead he should remember what he told me during a July 2007 interview about how he can balance the interests of blacks and whites.
“The more we can say we’re going to fight on behalf of all working Americans and we’re going to do extra stuff for those who need the most help, that’s an argument we can win,” he said.
Now that's an approach to problem solving that can transform this country.