Obama Makes History for African Americans

Stephen L. Carter
Yale Law School Professor
Thursday, June 5, 2008; 12:00 PM

Author and Yale professor Stephen L. Carter was online Thursday, June 5 at noon ET to discuss Sen. Barack Obama's historic Democratic primary victory -- making him the first black nominee from a major U.S. party -- and what his success means for African Americans.

A Run for the Ages? Scholars Say Obama's Campaign Is History in Motion | Elation Is Tinged With Incredulity (Post, June 5)

The transcript follows.

Carter has taught law at Yale since 1982, prior to which he clerked for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His books include "God's Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics," "Civility," "The Culture of Disbelief," "Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby" and a pair of novels.


Stephen L. Carter: Hello, Stephen Carter here. I look forward to chatting about these momentous events.


Yonkers, N.Y.: How much racism still lingers in parts of America? Is it enough to prevent an Obama victory? I for one am a white male who strongly supports Obama, but I'm also college-educated, hold a passport, am in my 20s and live only minutes outside The City. So I'm not ignorantly threatened by people of different ethnic groups, and find it hard to understand why others may be.

Stephen L. Carter: Of course lots of racism lingers in America, and the consequences are felt daily.

And yet America is changing, particularly near the top. The current administration has had two black secretaries of state. Financial firms, hedge funds, Silicon Valley corporations, have all been headed by African Americans.

The greatest challenges are at the other end, for there are millions who are very poor and suffering daily.


Raleigh, N.C.: I was having a discussion online with some people, and a question that came up was whether Obama would have won the nomination if Michelle were white. Would that have changed the racial dynamics? If so, would it have hurt Obama more among blacks or among whites? My opinion was that, no, if Michelle were white, he wouldn't have gotten nominated. But I don't know enough to know whether that would have been a bigger problem in the white or black community.

Stephen L. Carter: I do not know the answer to this one. I do know that I, as an African American, take enormous pride and pleasure in the thought of a black family living in the White House. I know many black people who do support Obama who have told me that his family is a part of the reason.


Baltimore: Professor Carter: As a lifelong liberal Democrat, I frankly am worried that overmuch discussion of the breakthrough nature of Sen. Obama's candidacy may hinder his run in the general election. After all, one of Sen. Clinton's more desperate tactics after South Carolina was to send her husband out as a surrogate to say "well, Jesse Jackson won here" -- specifically trying to paint Sen. Obama as the "black candidate" when he had, up to then, succeeded in positioning himself as the nation's first serious candidate to transcend race. Do you share my concern?

Stephen L. Carter: Nobody wins a presidential election as a pure liberal or as a pure conservative -- not in a very long time, anyway.

Senator Obama, in order to be elected, will have to find ways to broaden his message, that is, to show that he is less a liberal than a liberal-leaning centrist. If he can do this successfully, by parting with the hard left on concrete issues (school vouchers comes to mind), I do not think his race will keep him from the presidency.


New York: I work with two highly successful African Americans. One of them is deeply involved in his church and community (in addition to being a workaholic corporate lawyer) and the other has a more elite family background and rather involves himself with black-identified concerns. Both of these men are entirely committed to Obama's success and I am proud of them.

I have only one discomfort -- I voted for Hillary Clinton because her commitment to health care reform is more comprehensive. It has not created any ill will between myself and my bosses, who know me well, but it has made me deeply sad to see Hillary, her family and her supporters called racist. I think we all know that it's not right to life yourself up by putting others down, and I hope that the harsh rhetoric employed during the campaign will be reconsidered now. I've heard people say that God picked Obama, and to them I say "ask God to heal the speck in your eye." It's for all our sakes.

Stephen L. Carter: I do not think that the Clintons are racists. Not even close. I do not think that one would have to be a racist to oppose Senator Obama. I do think, in the heat of the campaign, both sides let their passions get the better of them, and said regrettable things. Now the candidates will try to patch things up. Presumably, so will their supporters.

When the campaign is really underway, I hope it will be about issues, not about personalities and labels. You might have read the studies suggesting that over the past thirty years, the amount of time the evening news devotes to the actual words of the candidates (as opposed to their own analysis and comment) has dropped from an average of just over 40 seconds to an average of just around 7. That is not the way to have a discussion of the issues.


New Hampshire: Hello Professor Carter. I just want to take the opportunity to thank you for your work. I very recently read both "New England White" and "The Emperor of Ocean Park" and was so very moved by your eloquence and style. I wonder if you think that Barack Obama's multiracial ethnicity and authentic respect for others in this world has contributed to his successful and historic campaign? Are the American people finally understanding what globalization really means, and do you think that with President Obama we finally will start addressing the atrocities that have been committed right here on U.S. soil, instead of poking others in the proverbial eye?

Stephen L. Carter: I do think it is important to emphasize that Senator Obama has a multi-national flavor and a multi-national appeal. I have heard all the theories about how this will affect the nation's image abroad if he is elected. I do not pretend to know how other countries will respond in the sense of actual policy. I do think the outpouring of interest and excitement abroad is a positive sign.

Thank you, by the way, for your kind words about my novels. I have a third one coming out in July, and I hope you enjoy it as much.


Bridgewater, Mass.:"Obama Makes History for African Americans" -- hmmm, actually, he's making history for all of us.

Stephen L. Carter: I could not have said it better.


Annapolis, Md.: As a historian by training and an Obama supporter by choice, I wonder whether we shouldn't wait until after he is elected to call this a historic moment. If Sen. Obama loses the general election, does it matter that he was the first African American nominated by a major party? Will this nomination still be historic if we have to wait 16 years for the next African American candidate, the way that conservative Republicans waited 16 years between the nominations of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan? Is this still a historic moment if the first African American president is a Republican? And wouldn't it be more historic if he was more of a traditional African American, i.e. great-grandson of slaves? Or is that like asking whether JFK's election matters because he was a bad Catholic, not a Catholic?

Stephen L. Carter: I take your point, but I think the moment is of enormous historical importance whether Obama loses or wins.

In the Post article this morning, I talked about my own childhood in Washington, D.C., and my memory, for example, of being punched in the side by a white man for sitting beside him on the bus -- in 1966! Given that history, I do think the moment has enormous significance. Remember, the Democratic Party is not offering up Obama as a sacrificial lamb in what is expected to be a Republican year. He is being nominated in a year when the Democrats are hoping to win, and win big. So the party, at least, believes he is going to be the President.

It is also true, of course, that if he wins, that is a larger historical moment. More than any of this, however, we must soberly admit that if he wins, he will be judged according to his policies and accomplishments, and the historical significance of his candidacy will likely fade.


Rochester, N.Y.: You write that Obama will have to "broaden his message" in order to win in November. What makes you think that? He is already ahead of McCain in many polls and he is raising much more money than McCain. Why do you feel the need to repeat that kind of political boilerplate?

Stephen L. Carter: Because I voted for Dukakis in 1988, and watched his 18-point lead disappear.


Fairfax, Va.: Regarding the first poster's question on racism -- if what's being preached in Obama's former church are indicative of what's said in other black churches, we have a long way to go. Let's hope Obama, win or lose, brings us a little closer.

Stephen L. Carter: My wife and I have attended various black churches for nearly all of our marriage -- 27 years. We never saw or heard anything like the messages we saw on television. Commentators who said that those messages were typical of the black church were simply wrong.

That said, I must add that I really think we pay too much attention to all of this business about the candidates and their pastors. I will judge a candidate based on his words and actions but not based on his pastor's words and actions.

I am not inventing this as a defense of Obama. I wrote it for years about Republicans, too, when the commentators got into a lot of the same nonsense. (See my 2000 book, God's Name in Vain.)


Harrisburg, Pa.: What is some of the foreign reaction to Barack Obama becoming a likely presidential nominee? I think back how the Soviets used to use our racial relations issues to argue against America within the international community. Is this helping our international reputation by showing that we are a nation that is mostly willing to consider candidates regardless of race?

Stephen L. Carter: A lot of people say that the election of Obama will help the nation's image abroad. I think this might be true as an initial matter. But as a scholar, I tend to be a realist on mattes of international relations, and I think, in the long run, the responses of other countries will be based on their evaluations of America's concrete policies.


Laurel, Md.: Unlike most African-Americans, Sen Obama is not descended from victims of slavery or segregation. Aren't there big differences between those who are versus the children of recent immigrants in terms of their societal attitudes towards America? Doesn't the Rev. Wright business show that the black and white worlds are much further apart than any one person can meld?

Stephen L. Carter: There certainly is some cultural difference between black and white in America, but there are also differences within the black community, and, everywhere, between rich and poor.

I have been arguing for years that the biggest problem facing America is poverty. I am distressed that so little is being said about it, and some of the things touted as solutions (raising the minimum wage, for instance) do not have any anti-poverty effect. I am a scholar, and I study data, not slogans. Here are some things we know help fight poverty: Not having children before marriage and finishing high school. Unfortunately, in one of the largest divides in America, the inner cities (and many pockets of rural poverty) have evolved cultures in which having babies before marriage is common, and finishing high school is not.

I do not know of any government programs that can reverse these trends. But if we do not at least try, it is hard for us to say we are genuinely committed to fighting poverty.


Niles, Mich.: Is there a generation gap in campus reactions as far as Democratic frontrunners' appeal (Obama as well as Hillary) that is different than the CEO/middle- and working-class "gap" in society overall? Does Obama benefit on any sides of such "gaps"?

Stephen L. Carter: I can only tell you that at Yale, where I teach, the students were overwhelmingly for Obama very early. I think it might be true that there have been more McCain supporters than Clinton supporters -- among students.

On the faculty, it seems to me that Obama and Clinton have had equally strong support. Less for McCain, interestingly.


New York: I believe Obama has only won the first round. His opponents -- an entrenched establishment -- have regrouped. Yesterday, McCain had the gall to say that "pundits and party elders have decided that Obama (will be the nominee)." Two weeks ago, Howard Kurtz justified the media attacks on Obama by claiming the media had created Obama in the first place. Seriously -- a candidate who rose from the ground up, and defied pundits, elders and the corporate-beholden media, and now this is being said.

Stephen L. Carter: It is the habit of every candidate's supporters to claim that the establishment is against them. In this case, I am not sure it is true. Many members of the media seem to me to be caught up in the same wave of excitement as others in the general public.

Obama has a powerful presence that draws people to him, and I do not think the establishment -- whatever it consists of -- is immune from its charm. The word charisma is overused, but Obama has more of it than I remember since (overused, but still) -- Kennedy.

Indeed, this year, the Democrats as a party, and Obama in particular, have raised more money on Wall Street than have the Republicans. That sounds pretty establishment to me.


Indianapolis: I don't think the black community has been given enough credit. I remember when Jessie Jackson and Al Sharpton ran for president, but this is different. Obama is a candidate who happens to be black, whereas Jessie Jackson and Al Sharpton were two black candidates. There's a difference. I'm black, and there's a lot of reasons to vote for Obama aside from skin color. As for his rhetorical skills ... well ... I didn't hear Republicans complaining about Reagan's speaking skills and ability to move a crowd when he first ran for office!

Stephen L. Carter: I do not know how to distinguish a black candidate from a candidate who happens to be black.

I do agree that Ronald Reagan had a powerful presence, too, which helped him win elections handily. I am reminded of Gary Wills's line about Reagan: "People do not believe that he means the meanness of his views" -- or something along that line.


Washington: I am an Obama supporter who lives in Washington. Recently the drunks who hang out on the sidewalk have been giving me a lot of trouble. Do you suspect that the chronic underachievers in the African American community will view this as an inspiration to stop drinking on the corner and get a job? Or do you think his presidency will inspire the community that already is self-inspired?

Stephen L. Carter: I think those who are suffering most in America -- and many of them are poor and black, yes -- need all the help and inspiration they can get.

Would an Obama presidency be of any help? I would like to think so. My wife and I, both black, have two children in college -- children who are hardworking and disciplined and have serious professional ambitions. A lot of young black kids lack the sense of ambition. I know that the term role-model is overused, but when I think about the young people we have mentored in the inner city, yes, I do think realizing that a black man can be President might make a difference, however small, in their lives.

I do not put this forward as a reason to vote for Obama, but only as a prediction -- no, a hope -- about what an Obama presidency might engender.


Arlington, Va.: The one problem I have with Obama is he projects weak image to our enemies via both his words and especially his body language. He comes across as slightly feminine and very intellectual, not the image I want a president to project in today's world. Now, McCain comes across as just old, and I hate to say but this Hillary comes across as a woman you don't want to mess with. Sorry, Obama comes across as to professorial and effete for me. He needs to come across like Isaac Hayes or Hawk, not Dr. Obama, Ph.D.

Stephen L. Carter: I lack the ability to read body language with this level of specificity. I do think that Obama projects a confidence and purpose that I fear you are missing.

I should repeat, however, what I said before. The political science scholars known as realists teach that countries respond to the policies, not the leaders, of other countries, and the evidence over the years is that the realists are right. So, if you want to know how other countries would react to an Obama presidency, you have to decide what policies you think he would pursue, and how these would be perceived.


Arlington, Va.:"On the faculty, it seems to me that Obama and Clinton have had equally strong support. Less for McCain, interestingly." Academic faculty largely support the Democratic candidates -- color me shocked!

Stephen L. Carter: I did not mean to suggest any surprise. Yes, it is true (and I say this as a registered independent) -- university faculties are overwhelmingly liberal and Democratic.

(Interestingly, this is even true at some universities seen as conservative.)


Fairfax County, Va.: My own perception (as a white female Obama supporter) is that this race has already begun to change American society. For example, I see many more African American and, interestingly enough, Latino commentators on the 24-hour news channels. I really have been interested to hear Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice weigh in -- not just now, but after the speech on race in Philadelphia.

I sense church groups, and perhaps schools, doing more programming about racial issues and wonder if this will become of lasting interest to white evangelicals as well. And I also see "Saturday Night Live" having to deal with a real embarrassment in not having a deep bench of African American cast members, and still struggling to find the right tone in joking about the Obama candidacy. Do you see these changes in our shared public culture as well, and will they last?

Stephen L. Carter: A great question.

I think American culture is changing. I am fifty-three years old, and I can remember racial taunts and slurs in my childhood, mistreatment by white teachers in my schools, and all the rest. But, even back then, there were signs pointing to a better world. In fact, one of the very white teachers who seemed to be me to say many racist things in the classroom was also the first teacher to suggest to me that I was a smart kid.

More to the point, I think the cultural changes you mention are real and important. We have a long way to go before we can claim to have moved beyond race in America. The legacies of slavery and Jim Crow will be with us for decades to come, I am sure. But I believe we are moving.

You are right to mention Condoleezza Rice as an example. Secretary of State, National Security Adviser, even -- years ago -- chief Soviet expert in the White House. The nation is full of African Americans moving forward in non-traditional roles.

But, again, the nation is also full of those being left behind. Indeed, by many measures, income stratification (the difference between the top and bottom fifth of earners) is growing in the black community faster than in the white community. (I do not have figures for the Latino community.)


Anonymous: In your opinion, is being "black" a statement about one's thoughts, one's genetics, or one's experiences? If it is thoughts, wouldn't Barack Obama be our nation's second "black president" because Bill Clinton was our nation's "first black president" for his empathetic feelings with many African Americans? If it is genetics, wouldn't Barack Obama be our nation's second "black president" because Warren Harding had a mulatto grandfather? Finally, and perhaps the most controversial, if it is background, what are your thoughts to those who argue that because Obama did not emerge from the "ghetto," he isn't "black enough"?

Stephen L. Carter: A very important question!

"Black" is a term largely imposed by the culture. It lacks biological significance.

I am adamantly opposed to the argument that says there is a right or a wrong way to be black. Interestingly, early in Obama's campaign, we did hear some black leaders questioning, in effect, his blackness. Those voices have largely been muted.


Washington: If elected president, do you think Obama will have the courage to level with the black community the way other Democratic presidents have failed to? The rate of single mothers, children without fathers, violence, drug use, unemployment, etc., are at staggering levels ... and above those of other minorities and the national average.

Can Obama lead African Americans away from the current culture of victimization, which -- led by people like Jackson and Sharpton -- has destroyed the black community by not urging them to take personal responsibility for their life choices? I see every minority in this country advancing, while African Americans led by the gangster culture are regressing. Can Obama address this honestly and openly?

Stephen L. Carter: This is, it seems to me, the crucial question for the future of those worst off in black America.

I think a President Obama, in a Nixon-to-China way, might indeed be exactly the person who could say to the black community that whatever the lingering effects of slavery and racism (and they are enormous!), there are problems that have to be solved within the community.

On the other hand -- and I know this is not your question -- I do not think that a President Obama would owe anything more to black America than a President McCain would. That is, the President has to pursue the best policies for the nation as a whole, not for the group whose ethnicity he happens to share.


Hometown: As neither a supporter nor detractor of Obama, simply a voter who has not made up his mind, I am concerned that the race already has exhibited such racial undertones. I think to most Americans, race simply is not the factor that qualifications and programs are. However, I have been surprised that so many of my friends regard any questioning of Obama's background or qualifications to be "racist." I fear we may be approaching an even greater racial divide, instead of closing the gap.

Stephen L. Carter: I do think one should be able to criticize Senator Obama without being labeled racist. I think it is wrong when ardent supporters toss the label around too freely.

At the same time, I think it is important to avoid (and condemn) any sort of neutral-sounding but carefully-coded messages that might indeed have a racist intention.


Cleveland: I thought Obama's humorous response about Clinton being the first black president showed how much we've grown as a county. Remember, Obama mentioned he'd need to check out Clinton's dancing abilities before he could say for sure whether Clinton was the first black president. It was a joke and a good one. Everyone white and black seemed comfortable enough to laugh at it.

Stephen L. Carter: I agree.


Fairfax, Va.: While discussions about the "firsts" in terms of race or gender in American politics certainly are interesting, a substantive discussion of the content of the candidates' policies and positions would be more relevant to what relief the candidate may bring to a suffering nation. So, in your opinion, who is Obama: A centrist-conservative like many Democrats nowadays, or -- as McCain labels him -- a "liberal" with "tired old liberal" ideas at that? Or something else?

Stephen L. Carter: I entirely agree that we should be debating policies, not the historical narrative.

At the same time, the narrative is enormously compelling. This simply is not the America I grew up in. The nation has a long way to go, but the Obama nomination, whether he wins or loses, is a remarkable moment.


New Orleans: Professor, you speak about systemic poverty; John Edwards made poverty a central element of his campaign and used my hometown as an example of how poverty can cause a host of ills. Are the adverse effects of poverty cultural? It seems to me that poverty was widespread after the Great Depression, but the poor did not face the same problems they face today.

Stephen L. Carter: An important question, and one that historians, economists, and sociologists have debated for years.

One important difference between poverty today and the poverty of the depression years (or the poverty in the black community of the post-slavery years) -- the bonds of family were much tighter then. Plenty of evidence suggests that close-knit families have a greater chance of rising out of poverty.

In addition, the educational divide was much smaller. Few jobs required formal education, and there was plenty of work even for the functionally illiterate. Nowadays, the advantage conferred by even a few extra years of schooling is enormous, and difficult to overcome.

I should add that I am not sanguine about either party's ideas for coping with poverty. I think we tend to get too ideological about it. There are useful ideas on the left and there are useful ideas on the right, and until we develop a "one-from-column-A, one-from-column-B" mentality, I doubt that we will accomplish much.


Franconia, Va.: Do you agree that Barack Obama has the potential to be our (Democratic) party's Ronald Reagan? I think that is what he aspires to. His mention of Reagan early on was not meant only to needle Bill Clinton -- although it did so with spectacular success -- but also to set the bar really high in terms of transformational, lasting-impact presidencies. I must admit that is exactly how I see Obama. And I don't know if his unusual multiracial background makes that all the more surprising or is actually the key Hollywood ingredient (again, paralleling Reagan) that makes it possible.

Stephen L. Carter: I am a registered independent, not a Democrat, so I am not part of "our."

Having said that -- yes, I do think Senator Obama has the potential to be the party's Ronald Reagan. But, to do so, he must transform his charisma into lasting change. Reagan altered the face of government for decades -- and into the foreseeable future -- particularly on the issue of tax rates. It will be interesting to see, if Obama wins, whether he has that sort of transformative effect.

I think he can, if he tries to limit his agenda to a few key issues, rather than tackling everything the party wants.


Atlanta: As a sociologist, I wonder what your opinion is about how to measure the "hidden racism" that will be at work in this election. If I had to guess, I'd say subtract 10 percent to 15 percent support off national and state polls to get at the amount of voters who might tell pollsters that they would vote for Sen. Obama, but really would not -- just to be "politically correct." Would you agree? I keep thinking of 2004 exit polls saying one thing and then the actual vote going the other way ... and thinking the same thing could happen again. What are your thoughts?

Stephen L. Carter: In past elections with black candidates, the figure has been between 2 and 5 percent. If it runs at 15 percent, that would be remarkable, and terribly depressing.


Arlington, Va.: Just a thought: My vote for Obama had nothing at all to do with history, or his skin color (and I'm mixed-race, too). I voted for him because I thought he was and is the better candidate. Wasn't the whole point of the civil rights movement for us to note the differences between people, but for these differences to have no bearing on what opportunities are available to each of us?

Stephen L. Carter: I think this is the kind of voter Obama needs if he is going to prevail. And, in the end, I think that policies and character will matter more. The "first-black" narrative will get old, and the media will pay attention -- as it should -- to trying to figure out what each candidate would actually do as President.


Obama's success in this election: I believe, is because the fact that there's a little bit of everyone in him: Raised by a single white mother ... a blank Harvard graduate ... spent time overseas ... appears to be a family man, but still a politician ... it's really as if most people, I suspect, can identify with him in one way or another. Also, how do you feel in regards to people wondering, still, if he is black or white? He is both, but most African American's have mixed heritage, which was a direct result of slavery ... when will people understand that black people had no choice in how we were viewed by society (one-drop rule)? Thanks.

Stephen L. Carter: I will just say that when we heard on the news last night that Senator Obama and his wife were going on a date, my wife and I smiled at each other.


Philadelphia: Do you fear John McCain and Republicans will be more aggressive in attacking Barack Obama because Republican generally do not have the fears of being "politically correct" that affect Democrats more? If this happens, how should Obama react to attacks that may contain veiled racism?

Stephen L. Carter: I think the opposite will be true. I think, given the current atmosphere, the Republicans will bend over backward not to seem to be using racial code words. Their best chance to win will be to emphasize policy differences.

But if coded or actual racial attacks do occur, from whatever source, I think McCain should condemn them and Obama should ignore them.

(By the way, I also hope the Democrats and their supporters will be wise enough, and moral enough, not to raise attacks, explicit or implicit, about Senator McCain's age, and to condemn them if they occur.)


Woodbridge, Va.: It will be very interesting to see what anti-poverty policies Obama pursues if elected. If he simply pulls out the old Great Society playbook for big government programs, or follows Edwards's prescription of protectionism and pining for an economy that is gone (and not coming back), he will have wasted an opportunity.

Stephen L. Carter: I have a fantasy in which Senator Obama criticizes the California court decision that makes home schooling, in most situations, illegal in that state.

Everyone says he needs to pivot sooner or later, and this would seem to be a good place to do it. He could speak eloquently about parental responsibility for their children, and about allowing loving parents, if they so desire, to undertake the education of those children. This would signal a strong and non-partisan appreciation of true "family values" in a way that all the code-words that we fight over do not.


Rockville, Md.: Hello. I voted for Clinton because I think she is more experienced for the job, and also because I think it will be more difficult for a qualified woman to reach this level in politics before a non-white man. Have you heard this from other people? Thank you.

Stephen L. Carter: Perhaps the real sign of progress will be when a non-white woman reaches this spot, in either party.


Seattle: I'm recalling the debate in January where Tim Russert tried to ask questions about race, but all got turned into Identity Politics. What would you envision as a forum to start a real dialogue on race in America that would pay attention not only to the crimes of the past but also look to changes that could be made to create the better future that Obama's campaign hints at?

Stephen L. Carter: I do not know where the proper forum is. I do know that we need the conversation.

I doubt that we can do it in electoral politics. The media have shied from the real problems of race, preferring to pursue hotter topics. I myself have tried to ventilate some of the issues through writing fiction. But as to where and how we will have genuine conversation -- in all honesty, I just don't know.


Manassas, Va.: Where does Clarence Thomas figure in this picture? Didn't he prove that the U.S. was changing as well?

Stephen L. Carter: Although I may not always agree with Justice Thomas's decisions, his life story is an inspirational one, and, yes, although he was not the first black Supreme Court Justice (that was my friend and mentor Thurgood Marshall), I do think his presence on the Court also serves as an important symbol, and, for young black kids, a role model.


Dallas: I know this is a hot topic, but why doesn't Sen. Obama reflect on his biracial heritage? Isn't he correctly a man of African American descent? If he were to focus on being half-white, could that mitigate some racist tones of voters -- i.e. think Tiger Woods?

Stephen L. Carter: An interesting question, and one that helps illustrate the remarkable complexity of racial labels.

I think Senator Obama does reflect, often, on his complex heritage, especially in his writing. It is the media, in its quest for simplification, that reduces him to a single symbol.

I doubt that there are many actual racist voters left in America. No doubt there are some -- but those few will not be more likely to vote for Obama if they realize that he is biracial.


A Note to "Yonkers": I challenge your premise that the presence of racism can possibly prevent an Obama victory. Many, many people who are college-educated, have a passport, etc., are ardent McCain supporters. Do you think my support of him only could be because I am a racist, or is it possible that most Americans will make a fairly well-informed decision?

Stephen L. Carter: I admit it is old-fashioned of me, but I tend to believe in the collective intelligence of the American people. If Obama wins, it will be because people like his policies and his character. If he loses, it will be because people do not.

So far, they evidently do.

But I think it is important to point out that Senator Obama is a politician, not a Messiah. If elected, he will sometimes make mistakes. He will pursue policies at times that the public dislikes. He will make people mad. That goes with the job.


Arlington, Va.:"Stephen L. Carter: I do not know where the proper forum is. I do know that we need the conversation. I doubt that we can do it in electoral politics. The media have shied from the real problems of race, preferring to pursue hotter topics. I myself have tried to ventilate some of the issues through writing fiction. But as to where and how we will have genuine conversation -- in all honesty, I just don't know."

I think the conversation is just beginning ... we know that one of the many roots of the problem is isolation and lack of exposure. People distrust the unknown. There are now more avenues than ever to counter this issue. There's nothing that can be done about the willfully ignorant, but maybe now progress can be made with others.

Stephen L. Carter: I do think the media have an important role to play, in fostering conversation on this and many other issues. I think the media can play that role if we can avoid the reduction of everything to sound bites and instant commentary.

When the debates are held, I hope they are about the candidates not the moderators. If we are going to have these 60-second and 90-second limits, we are wasting the time of both the candidates and the voters. I would like to see media and candidates alike respect us enough to leave space for long and complex answers, and then not to insult us, on the news later, by reducing those answers to 8-second blips.

The nation and the world face many complex issues, and the ones we tend to name in the campaigns (Iraq, energy, jobs) are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. It would be a wonderful thing to see and hear the candidates debating in rich detail the many problems that do not easily fit onto bumper stickers.

I am a great fan of the late Richard Hofstadter, who, fifty years ago, warned that the politics of slogan is inherently reactionary. I agree. We need to engage on the issues, not simply fight about them. Perhaps the media will even decide to serve the public interest by helping us do so.


Stephen L. Carter: Thanks for having me. Fascinating questions. I must go now. Hope to chat again soon.


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company