From Obama, a Map for a New March

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, March 6, 2007

If you had to pick a winner in last weekend's Selma bake-off between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, it would have to be Obama. It is not just that he performed better than Hillary Clinton; it's that he had something very important to say to black America. It has to do, I think, with the extraordinary promise of his candidacy.

This is not an endorsement of Obama. At 45 years of age, questions about his youth, judgment and experience linger. We all have time to assess him on that score and glean -- and it will be no more than that -- whether, like Teddy Roosevelt (42), he is old enough for the presidency or, like Bill Clinton (46), he is still too young. For the moment, though, I wonder about something else: What impact will he have on America's abiding problems with race?

The cynic in me says that the answer is "not much." Yet the speech he gave commemorating the anniversary of the march by civil rights activists from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., is one that could not have been delivered by a white candidate, not even one with impeccable civil rights credentials such as Hillary Clinton has. Her speech was a recitation of Democratic Party cliches.

Not so Obama's. As Clinton did, he voiced the expected obeisance to Democratic Party shibboleths about school funding, health care, pensions and such, some of which matter, some of which don't. But then he turned to what clearly does matter: "discipline and fortitude . . . sometimes I feel like we've lost it a little bit."

There was a whole paragraph of text between the words "discipline and fortitude" and "we've lost it a little bit." Suffice it to say, it was an homage to the incredibly brave and, yes, disciplined civil rights activists of old -- ordinary people, most of them black, who practiced passive resistance. These were the young men and women -- "backs straight, eyes clear, suit and tie, sitting down at a lunch counter knowing somebody is going to spill milk on you" -- who subordinated their anger to something bigger: their cause. They made this country a much better place.

"But I'll tell you what," Obama went on. "Even as I fight on behalf of more education funding . . . I have to also say that if parents don't turn off the television set when the child comes home from school and make sure they sit down and do their homework and go talk to the teachers and find out how they're doing . . . I don't know who taught them that reading and writing and conjugating your verbs was something white."

Obama went on to urge blacks to couple their complaints with activism. "Put on your marching shoes," he said. "Go do some politics. Change this country!" That's what we need. And then he said, as he had to, that while there are too many children living in poverty -- and, of course, there are -- "don't tell me that it doesn't have a little to do with the fact that we got too many daddies not acting like daddies. Don't think that fatherhood ends at conception."

There is nothing particularly new about this message. You might call it warmed-over Bill Cosby or even an echo of Jesse Jackson. But Cosby is an entertainer and Jackson never stood any chance of getting to the White House. So the uniqueness is not the message; it is the refreshing combination of this particular man and what he is saying.

Will any of this matter? I can only hope so. After all, the problem no longer is widespread racism but the crushing effect that past racism has had on a particular group: young black men. A disproportionate number of them are in trouble -- and so, on that account, are we all. The statistics are appalling. Young black men are a teeny piece of the population, yet they are implicated in 25 percent of the nation's homicides and comprise 15 percent of all murder victims. Black men are more likely than white men to die of AIDS or, if you will, just plain die. Their life expectancy is more than six years shorter.

Would a black president make a difference? Hard to say. But a black president -- or, for the moment, a black presidential candidate of consequence -- permits others to say what needs to be said, and that is a step in the right direction. It's been 42 years, but maybe a new march is about to begin.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company