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Is Black America Strong Enough For An Obama Presidency?

06/11/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

African-Americans should be careful of what they wish for. They just might get it.

In February of last year when Sen. Barack Obama officially began his run to be the Democratic nominee for president, the collective response by black Americans was "Well, whoop-tee-do!" if poll reports are to be trusted. Political pundits intoned that he might not be black enough for most African-Americans.

Over the past year and a half, according to those same polls and pundits, black America has revised its opinion about Obama. African-Americans now shout "Run, Obama, run!" and celebrate as they see him seemingly on the cusp of clinching the Democratic nomination, and perhaps in November grabbing the brass ring to become America's first black president. (Note: the one drop rule for being "black" is still in full effect.)

But should black folk be celebrating? If elected to the nation's highest office, President Obama will likely be unable to effectively address problems that disproportionately affect black Americans.

Obama's campaign has already been under intense scrutiny about how "black" it is. Just one example occurred four months ago when Sen. Obama's wife, Michelle Obama, said "for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country. . ." referring to her feeling that America was poised for positive change. Her husband's critics descended like a vortex of angry hornets on what Fox News called her "newfound national pride."

The next day Cindy McCain, the wife of Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, volunteered: "I just wanted to make the statement that I have and always will be proud of my country."

Of course, those words come easily to Mrs. McCain: She is rich, white, and blond to boot. But for black Americans who like all Americans carry in their pockets portraits of slave holders -- George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson -- to be blindly patriotic is to be blind to important parts of American history. It is to be blind to their personal experience which is pockmarked, albeit less frequently of late, with injustices due solely to the color of their skin.

True: Sen. Obama's official campaign Web site addresses not only the war in Iraq, the economy and health care, but unlike the websites of Senators Clinton and McCain, Obama addresses civil rights in a ways that seem to have particular relevance to black Americans. In that section he promises to "ban racial profiling by federal law enforcement agencies and provide federal incentives to state and local police departments to prohibit the practice", "Reduce Crime Recidivism by Providing . . . job training, substance abuse and mental health counseling to ex-offenders, so that they are successfully re-integrated into society," and to "Eliminate Sentencing Disparities. . .between sentencing crack and powder-based cocaine. . . ."

But if elected president how far would he get in implementing these reforms before he'd be accused of instituting a "black agenda," which one can only imagine is a sepia-tinted Protocols of the Elders of Zion. (The term "black agenda" was actually cited last week on National Public Radio by a Florida voter as a reason some people won't mark their ballot for Obama.)

If Obama is elected commander-in-chief, mainstream America will watch him like a hawk, and it's easy to suppose that progress will stall for the neediest segment of black America.

I base my assumption on my observations of a vocal segment of my fellow countrymen. In January of last year, for instance, in a conversation on a radio talk show about the two head black coaches at the Super Bowl, a male caller, who identified himself as white, said, "Now they'll finally have their black Super Bowl coach no matter what. What more do they want!?"

In a March 2006 review of race in television that ran in a prominent newspaper, the critic mentioned the program "Grey's Anatomy," noting:

"For obvious historic reasons, networks are geared to be most attuned to African-American concerns. Some shows try a little too hard: 'Grey's Anatomy,' set in Seattle, has among its lead characters three African-American surgeons and one Asian-American. . ."

It's likely that the person who tried "a little too hard," was not a network executive, but Shonda Rhimes, the creator and producer of the hour-long drama, who is black. But of course the television critic didn't know that.

In 2002 Pat Oliphant, the Pulitzer prize-winning political cartoonist, drew a four panel strip about slavery reparations. I've tried to find an online copy of the cartoon, but it seems to have vanished like an entry in the old Soviet encyclopedia. Still, accounts by the Associated Press and the Student Press Law Center, a non-profit organization in Arlington, Va, confirm my memory of the strip: In it Oliphant depicts a conversation between Abraham Lincoln and one of his advisers. Lincoln is offering black people civil rights, affirmative action and "all sorts of other preferential entitlements." (I was tickled to see Mr. Oliphant refer to civil rights as a "preferential" entitlement.)

In the strip the advisor tells Lincoln, "They want all that and the money." In the corner of one panel, Oliphant's trademark penguin adds, "They also demand the Academy Awards."

If Sen. Obama is elected president, mainstream America will likely say, "You black people have your Miss Americas. You have your black Super Bowl coach. You even have your Academy Award winners. And now, finally, you have your black president. What more do you want!?"

While it's unlikely McCain or Clinton will do anything to address problems specific to black America, it's unlikely Obama will be able to. No matter who is elected in November, the new administration will inaugurate a new era for native-born Americans of African decent. They will have to bring their full powers of analysis to figure out effective strategies for economic, political and educational progress. Regardless of who becomes president, black America will need to not only put on its collective thinking cap, but also fasten its collective seat belt, because the next few years will be a very bumpy ride.