washingtonpost.com
How Big a Stretch?
For Barack Obama, Winning the White House Would Mean Bridging The Biggest Gap Of All

By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 7, 2007

They watch him. They listen to him talk. Is he the kind of person they think he is? The kind of black man? The stakes are oh so high. It's the presidency he's after, the breaking down of a historic barrier. Can he transcend racial divisions? Is it safe to support him? Is he safe from harm while running for president in a nation of such abiding racial tension?

For Sen. Barack Obama's white supporters, this is the dialogue of race, the parsing of perceptions and expectations as they watch their man campaign.

They are people like Katie Lang, 32, a Tampa insurance executive, who has her own simple formula for judging Obama. In a word, it's transcendence. She believes Obama, when it comes to race, rises above the fray.

"Obama speaks to everyone. He doesn't just speak to one race, one group," she says. "He is what is good about this nation."

At a campaign event in Tampa last month, she hung on Obama's every word as he spoke to an adoring crowd packed into the courtyard of the historic Cuban Club of Ybor City. As she listened, race wasn't in the forefront of her mind, she says later. It usually isn't, she says.

"Kind of like, if I could compare him to Tiger Woods. When I look at Tiger Woods, I see the best golfer in the world," she says. "So when I see Barack Obama, I see a strong political candidate. I do not see 'Oh, that's a black man running for president, or African American or multiracial black.' It's not what comes to mind first. What comes to mind first is: great platform, charismatic, good leader, attractive."

If the United States is to elect its first black president, it is white voters like Lang who largely will make that choice. Though much has been made about whether Obama is "black enough" for black voters, perhaps a more relevant question is this: Has the nation's white majority evolved to a point where it can elect a black man as president?

Obama's political future rests in part on the complicated answer to that question. In separate interviews, 10 white supporters who attended the Tampa fundraising rally talked about their perceptions of the dicey realm of race and its impact on Obama's electability. Though they admire his character, achievements, charisma and political philosophy, many expressed fear that racial prejudice might stymie his campaign. They discussed, haltingly in some cases, their own racial beliefs and perceptions as well as the cues they pick up from Obama to learn something of his racial philosophy. They listen to the timbre of his voice and the substance of his message to discern whether he is speaking to "us" and not just to "them."

Lang, a native New Yorker, says her upbringing was all about bridging ethnic and racial divisions. She grew up amid a melange of people. Her playmates were African American, Jewish, Korean, Samoan, Pakistani and, like herself, Irish. She became accustomed at an early age, she says, to looking beyond race and ethnicity. Today she conducts diversity training in her workplace and is a proponent of affirmative action, a position she staked out in college. Stepping out of the conservative tradition of her family and eschewing her previous support of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) , she believes Obama offers a new vision of politics and leadership.

Yet, as much as she would like to not focus on Obama and race, on reflection she realizes that she does. She sometimes wonders: Does Obama feel pressured to "go above and beyond and work even harder" than do whites? Or: Is he safe from the "evil people" who could be agitated by the presence of "an African American with a name like that? . . . So I think he's taking a huge risk," she says. For that, she admires him even more.

Navigating the Electorate

Richard Fueyo, 45, an antitrust lawyer, stood under the hot sun at the Obama rally along with his wife, Mary Ann, and 10-year-old daughter, Kate. With a Spanish American father and a white American mother, Fueyo knows a bit about straddling different cultures. He did not learn Spanish as a child because his family wanted to avoid the ensuing stigma. Kids who spoke Spanish were considered "dumb," he says. His father even changed his name from Jesus to Jack.

The Fueyos are attracted to Obama because of his statements on spirituality and community. In them, they hear strains of Catholic social teachings on human dignity and equality. Mary Ann Fueyo has not yet decided whom to support, while her husband already is in Obama's corner.

"He's got such brilliant judgment," Richard Fueyo says.

Fueyo finds Obama's handling of race especially intriguing: the way Obama navigates among the American electorate's perceptions and expectations.

"I don't think he's one of these guys who says, 'We're past that. Race doesn't matter. We're a color-blind society,' " says Fueyo. "But I think that he's smart, and if people want to read that in him, he doesn't disabuse them of that."

"I think part of what he's really saying is we're not a black America and a white America. But I think if you were to ask, 'Well, does that mean there are no cultural differences, no racial prejudices?' -- the whole thing they say in white America, like, 'We're tired of hearing it' -- I think he would say, 'No, I don't agree with that.' "

And Fueyo knows a good bit about what "white America" thinks.

"I hear many racial jokes and epithets because I am 'white,' " he wrote later in an e-mail. "IMO, there is far more racial prejudice out there than a black person might realize."

Undeniably, there is a deep yearning -- among people of all kinds -- for the nation's racial divisions to ease. But equally undeniable is the fear that the country has not progressed as much as many would hope. This concern is especially pronounced among some Obama supporters.

"I'd like to see Obama win," says Tom Orr, 56. "I'd like to see Obama be the president. What worries me is there's still so much prejudice in the country it might not be possible."

An entrepreneur and inventor, Orr grew up in Miami. When his father, Jack Orr, a Florida legislator, was the lone voice against a state effort to shore up school segregation in the face of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education ruling, strange things started happening.

"People showed up with torches on the porch, and I thought it was Halloween," Orr says, laughing at his innocence at the age of 6 or 7. "They burned a cross into the lawn with gasoline. Another time they burned a whole phrase into the lawn that I won't repeat."

His late father, who also was Metro-Dade mayor in the 1970s, remains Orr's inspiration "that someday we'll erase all this nonsense about race." He is so troubled by racial categorization, he says, that when he fills out any form asking for his race, he writes the word "human."

Wryly, he calls his support of Obama a kind of "reverse prejudice. It's just about time that someone of color got some credibility in a race like this for president. It's happened too many times that they've been left out. He represents some progress in the attitudes of the country."

A 2003 Gallup poll found that 92 percent of Americans are willing to vote for a qualified African American candidate for president.

Still, obstacles other than race might thwart Obama's emergence as the Democrats' candidate. He is up against another barrier buster in Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.)

In her quest to be the first female president, the two-term senator and former first lady has a more high-powered political résumé than the former state legislator and first-term senator from Illinois. Early polls show her leading the pack. The most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll put Obama at 20 percent to Clinton's 37 percent. In that poll, Obama's white support was 16 percent; Clinton's was 31 percent.

Once, polls in races between a white and black candidate were wildly unreliable. White voters have had a history of telling pollsters they will vote along their party lines when faced with a black candidate; then, in the privacy of the booth, they cross party lines to vote for the white candidate.

What Polls Suggest

Another measure of progress is that the phenomenon seems to be fading, according to a Pew Research Center paper, "Can You Trust What Polls Say About Obama's Electoral Prospects?"

In 2006, when white Republican Bob Corker beat black Democrat Harold Ford Jr. to represent Tennessee in the Senate, Corker's lead was overstated in the polls. Whites voted for Ford in largely the numbers they had told pollsters they would.

The trend toward greater racial predictability in electoral polls "does not mean that there isn't racially motivated voting," says Scott Keeter, Pew's director of survey research and one of the authors of the Obama paper.

"It doesn't mean that there aren't people still out there who won't vote for a black candidate because of their own prejudice. But it suggests that if we have pre-election polls that tell us that Barack Obama is a credible presidential contender, we can take those findings at face value in a way that we couldn't 20 years ago."

Obama cuts a unique profile in large part because of his biracial and multinational background. His father was a black Kenyan, his mother a white American. He was raised in Hawaii and Indonesia, with a stepfather from that country.

That background, as well as his care in employing the rhetoric of unity and inclusion, leads some to feel he is a more acceptable kind of black politician than those who emphasize and speak angrily about race.

If he were more like Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, several people said, Obama would resonate far less among whites than he does now.

"I probably wouldn't like him as much," says Joyce Heran, 53, a public school teacher and Hillsborough County Democratic Committee member. Jackson "seems to have more tunnel vision. He's focused on just the black people. I understand that, but there's a lot of other people that get stepped on, too."

Mike Suarez, 42, a friend of Fueyo's and chairman of the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee, pointed out what Obama did not say during his Tampa rally.

"If he were the quote-unquote traditional black candidate, he would have said something about Don Imus," said Suarez, who has not yet decided upon a candidate. "He would have said something about the Duke lacrosse decision and he would have said something about Jackie Robinson."

If Obama were to talk more sharply on issues of race and speak more like Jackson or Sharpton, "it would bother me as far as my support," Fueyo says. "It would bother me as far as I'm thinking, you're not smart. You've got to be able to have everyone hear what they want to hear."

And most whites want to hear a more muted message on race, if they want to hear about it at all, he says.

Suarez, who also identifies himself as a white Latino, says he suspects that some whites are projecting onto Obama their perception of what a black man should be -- less black.

"They want to take race out of it," says Suarez. "Because they like him so much, they want him not to be black."

Both he and Fueyo say Obama is viewed by whites in much the same way as Tony Dungy, coach of the Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts, and Michael Jordan, the former basketball superstar -- men not known for playing the so-called race card and who, therefore, are more acceptable.

Obama does talk about race, but in a way that does not alienate whites, Fueyo notes.

In his speech, Obama talked about how he had served African Americans, Latinos and other "disenfranchised people" in his law practice, and shared the emotions he felt upon traveling to Selma for a recent civil rights commemoration. He quoted Martin Luther King Jr., saying: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." And it doesn't bend alone, he added, but rather with the force of folks who push it along:

"At each junction of American history, ordinary folks have said, 'We don't care about the world as it is. We imagine the world as it might be.' . . . That is the moment that we are in right now. I hope that this campaign becomes the vehicle for your hopes, for your dreams, for the aspirations that you have for your children and for your grandchildren."

A Question of Timing

His words moved Heran, the teacher. After the speech, her eyes were teary, she says, because her two sons are biracial -- Pacific Islander and white -- "and I know how hard it's been."

"People say it doesn't make any difference, but sometimes it has," she adds, such as seeing her sons treated differently.

But she worries that a person of color will not land in the White House, she says, "until all those people who went through the civil rights era, until they're all dead, until our generation is dead. . . . There's too many old people. They're going to maybe vote against him because he's black."

Megan Foster, 49, has higher hopes. A grass-roots Democratic activist, Foster knew as soon as she first heard Obama speak in 2005 that he was a special politician.

"He gave us chills," she recalls. Like Bobby Kennedy, he has "the It factor," which she describes as "charisma, intelligence, someone who can just handle it all, and deliver and captivate."

Raised in Pittsburgh by Irish American parents who pulled their kids out of Catholic schools and sent them to join in the integration of the public schools, Foster is married to a black man and has multiracial kids -- black, white, Latino -- including three who are her own and two who are adopted. But, she says adamantly, "that's not the reason that I support Obama. . . . There could be some affinity, but that's not what drives me."

"If I relate to him on any level, it's as a community organizer," she says, "the fact that he gets the grass roots, and that's what I am."

Sure, she says, there will be lots of people who won't vote for Obama because of race. She calls them "the bottom 30 percent," those who still support the president and won't replace him with a Democrat anyway. But she also believes many whites are receptive to Obama's message, his campaign and his attempt to break through this most significant racial barrier in American political life.

"In politics, you have to sell yourself," she says, "and I think he's doing a heck of a job selling himself now."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company