For new school black politicians, it is an essential question: How do you recognize the righteous anger of those frustrated by racial inequality without looking like just another Angry Black Man?
Those of us who write often about black folks and politics knew there would come a moment when the first black man with a realistic shot at becoming president would have to face this challenge -- reconciling black anger and frustration with white fear and resentment.
Our mistake: We assumed that, for Obama, this issue would come flying from the direction of someone like Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson -- a traditional civil rights leader who would insist Obama prove his fealty to black issues by showing the kind of aggressive advocacy which often turns off traditional white voters.
Who knew that the race-based bullet wounding Obama's campaign would come from friendly fire -- his spiritual mentor Jeremiah Wright -- adding yet another unpredictable twist to the most unconventional electoral contest in history?
I've already pointed out how the initial stories about Rev. Jeremiah Wright's sermons have distorted many of his points. So I'm not saying he shouldn't feel compelled to defend his church and his reputation by facing down the media by speaking to PBS' Bill Moyers, speaking to the Detroit NAACP Sunday and speaking to the National Press Club in Washington D.C. as I write this.
But by now it's obvious Obama is deep in a sound-bite-fed, image-waged war. A man smart as Wright knows it doesn't really matter what he says. He's been reduced to an emotional image -- the Willie Horton of 2008 -- a boogeyman of black nationalism and aggression, used as a prop to make the professorial Obama look like a smooth talker hiding more radical inclinations.
Obama's people probably hoped they might flick controversy over Wright off the campaign's radar the way the candidate quoted Jay-Z in pretending to flick off criticisms from Hillary Clinton. Or the way Obama flicked off traditional black power brokers such as Sharpton and Tavis Smiley. Black folks surprised the pundits by accepting that Obama didn't have to touch base with these traditional leaders to get black votes, and white voters seemed pretty ready to disregard complaints from these figures, given his success with black constituencies.
But Wright's recent appearances will continue to hurt the candidate, because the reverend is the radical Obama never was, and he's close enough to give skeptical white voters an excuse. Right now, Wright is holding court before the world's TV cameras and an admiring audience at the Press Club. His dismissive attitude toward the moderator's questions -- which basically articulate the concerns many white voters have about Wright's public statements and positions -- are playing well in the room, but will likely stoke anger among the assembled press and probably among some white viewers.
The Today Show this morning featured a clip from Sunday's speech where Wright took aim at John F. Kennedy's accent (he was noting that people rarely criticize the way the Kennedys mangle English the way some black people do). But I think his more controversial comments came when he maintained the black people learn differently than white people because of the way their brains work -- something a lot of people, black and white, will find more objectionable.
Obama's problem is that Wright is genuinely controversial, though not in the way some pundits maintain. And as much as Wright maintains attacks on him are an attack on the black church, his appearance today mostly highlighted how controversial he is personally.
And he's now given Obama's critics a fresh raft of soundbites to wedge into news reports and campaign commercials, praising Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and refusing to retract statements such as his contention that the government created the HIV virus.
What's obvious to me, is that a moderate like Obama is much better equipped to referee America's inevitable struggle to reconcile black anger with white resentment. But Wright's bombastic tactics will put his skills to the test, forcing the candidate to bridge one of the largest cultural chasms in America while running one of the tightest races for the Democratic nomination ever seen.
Wouldn't it be ironic if Obama's pro-black pastor was the one who kept Democrats from presenting the party's first black nominee for president?