Blacks Pondering Whites Voting for Obama

Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign has transcended racial politics.
Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign has transcended racial politics. (Chip Somodevilla - Getty Images)
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By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, January 9, 2008

A new version of an old race game has been gaining popularity among African Americans lately. I call it, "Divining the White Mind: Can a Black Man Be Elected President?" Imagine a board game in which a black figure moves across a map of the United States, offering up clues about racial attitudes in America.

Here's how my friends and I play:

We start with a figure of mythical proportions, one that can appear to be black in a flash, then instantly meld into the mainstream. A political kung fu master, he can walk on the rice paper of race relations, acknowledging white institutional racism on one hand and exhorting blacks to behave responsibly on the other.

Call him Barack Obama. But who is he really? Our guide to the colorblind Promised Land that Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned? Or a puppet candidate, whose phenomenal financial backing comes with strings attached?

As a Democratic candidate for president, Obama took the Iowa caucuses by storm, and he gave Hillary Rodham Clinton a run for her money in yesterday's New Hampshire primary. In the past, those states were described in such terms as "conservative" and "independent." But with a black man in the game, they have been recast as "white states."

Are they also barometers of a new white state of mind, as the political pundits claim?

Edward Chapman, an African American physician who lives in Mitchellville, does not hedge his enthusiasm.

"To see a black man stand on stage with his wife and two children and all of those white folks supporting him has already been a sea change for me about how far white people have come," he told me after Obama's victory in Iowa. "My mother was born in Sioux City in 1913. The changes that have occurred since then tell me that America is beginning to acknowledge that there are many black talented people out there, talented enough to run this country."

Few African Americans that I know divine what's on white minds with such trusting abandon. And understandably so, for deeply embedded in the subconscious of many is the historical memory of incomprehensible white inhumanity toward black people.

Even as Obama makes great strides in his 21st-century run for president, a group of white supremacists is planning a 19th-century-style Ku Klux Klan march on Jena, La. Gleaning which white people would vote for a black man and which would just as soon string him up is part of a survival instinct that black people have honed over centuries.

But we don't always guess right, as James Byrd Jr. of Jasper, Tex., learned in 1998 when white men he mistook for friendly tied him to the back of a pickup and dragged him to death.

With Obama, the race game is certainly more fun -- even though the possibility of a tragic end keeps our psychic antenna acutely tuned. As CNN's Wolf Blitzer put it in a promo for a news segment last year: "Coming up, a presidential race factor, death threats and a real fear of assassination. Find out what African American candidates are facing on the road to the White House."

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