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Is Barack Obama's Candidacy About Race?

10/05/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Is Barack Obama's candidacy about race? Well, the Zen answer is that it both is and isn't.

Millions of Americans, most of them white, say they believe in the man, his message of change and hope, his intelligence and his capabilities. And he just happens to be African-American. His nomination by acclamation, as columnist Eugene Robinson noted, "implied an acceptance of leadership, a recognition of merit" that transcended race.

But race is indeed everything in this election. One of the most moving experiences of the Convention was to watch the reactions of African-Americans during the speeches by both Michelle and Barack Obama, to hear celebrities like Spike Lee being interviewed, and to read African-American columnists like Bob Herbert of the New York Times. There were lots of tears of happiness and self-pinching to see if it all was really true - feelings that most of us white Americans could share to a point but weren't able to fully tap into -- a well of deep-seated emotions rooted in generations of struggle to have an equal place at the American table.

The matter of race was central to these African-American Democrats. At the same time, white Democratic Americans were now saying "Pull up a chair and join the family. We want you, we need you, and we trust you with our future. We care about character, your belief in our shared American ideals and your ability to lead us all to a better place as a country. We don't care about race."

So Obama's nomination may not be about race. But it matters. The simple fact that an African-American is in line for the presidency serves to affirm for all of us our belief in America's best ideals. It provides reassurance, especially in a world that seems to disdain us, that our country is indeed special, a beacon of hope, and a land of opportunity where merit wins out, and that these are not just sentiments mouthed by politicians or written in civics books. We can all feel good about that. African-Americans weren't the only ones with lumps in their throats at points during the Democratic Convention.

And in a larger historical context, the nomination addresses and helps mend a central flaw in the American story, the hypocrisy inherent in our proclamation that all men are created equal while millions were enslaved. We have paid dearly for that hypocrisy throughout our history, from the loss of human potential, through a bloody Civil War, and into the present day as we try to come to terms with a legacy of exclusion, and demonstrate that the ideal of the American Dream is a reality and not a slogan.