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Is He Black Enough? Part Two

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Barack Obama's presidential campaign, awash in money, energy, and hope, has the political equivalent of a nagging cold that may ultimately be its undoing. He can't seem to shake it no matter what he does and far too many media observers can't seem to leave it alone. Nothing Obama has said on the campaign trail - with the possible exception being his recent talk of potential military action in Pakistan - has gained as much attention in the Black community as his response to "the question": Is he Black Enough? I've written before that the question is stupid and discussing it gives it more credence than it deserves. As a Black man who lives a Black life, I have yet to encounter anyone who spends much time on it - not in the barbershop, the grocery store, on the subway, in a restaurant, or church. Most Black people I know are just happy that a serious, accomplished, though inexperienced, Black man is running a credible and potentially successful campaign for the most important office in the world.

Obama's comments on the subject at the National Association of Black Journalists convention last week gave new attention to the question. He knew he would be asked about it and, according to one report, he joked about the issue at first, poking fun at a stereotype of blacks always being late for appointments: "I apologize for being a little bit late, but you guys keep asking if I'm black enough, so I figured I would stroll in." He would later get serious on the matter, wondering why, given his physical appearance and issue positions, he should be faced with this question. (Michelle Obama, his wife, decried the issue at a Chicago event two days later, contending that it sends a confusing message to children that must be stopped.)

The curious truth is that Barack Obama presents a quandary to many African Americans. He is undoubtedly Black, but his life doesn't have the same back story of rank-and-file African Americans. For example, he can't trace his heritage to the slaveholding or the Jim Crow South. And Indonesia and Hawaii aren't regular stops along the way for Black kids on their way to adulthood. Also, he is undercut in the Black community by the same attributes that make him so attractive to Whites: his comfort with Whites and his ability to make them comfortable with him. Some African Americans view with suspicion the quickness with which White America has embraced him. The irony there is that it may not be he, but White America's response to him, that raises questions about his racial authenticity. That is a shame, but not surprising; Black America places a very high, and often unfair, burden on those who seek "mainstream" achievement. The greatest slur one African American can deliver to another - "he or she is trying to act White" - is used against some Blacks who seek success outside the Black community.

So why, given his success so far, might this issue derail his presidential aspirations? Obama will not win the nomination without significant Black support and while he has strong support from Black America, so far, he hasn't quite dominated as hoped. The road to the Democratic nomination goes through places like South Carolina in which African Americans have a disproportionately large roll to play in who wins the primary. Though about 30 percent of the population, Blacks comprise nearly half of the Democratic voters in the state. This seemingly built-in advantage has not resulted in Obama pulling away from the field in the Palmetto State. Indeed, most recent polls of likely voters show him trailing New York Senator Hilary Clinton, in some cases by double digits.

The expectation upon his entry into the campaign was that he would wipe the floor with his opponents in the Black community. That hasn't happened to the extent that some hoped and may be traced to "the question."

Michael K. Fauntroy is an assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University and author of the recently published book Republicans and the Black Vote. He blogs at MichaelFauntroy.com