09/06/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Speaking Of Obama In Alabama

A couple weeks ago, one of my son's high school friends stopped by to say hello after completing his second year at a university in Alabama. He's a gregarious guy, makes plenty of friends. He's also a good student, I'm assuming, since he was an honors student in high school. But he's joined a fraternity, and that can be a head-turner. So I shouldn't have been surprised when he walked into the kitchen, said hello, and then teased: "Hey, so you're voting for Black Obama?"

Black Obama? I'd never heard THAT before. Then it clicked: this must be 'Bama Speak.

"Yes," I said, "I am. I think Obama's a great candidate, and I really do think he'll bring our country around."

I got a shuffling response. "Well," my young friend said, "I just don't think the country's ready."

Right then I knew that I'd just heard the polite white person's excuse for not supporting Obama: "The country's not ready yet." The line is so impersonal that it's almost nice, like good folks are taught to be. In my mom's words, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all."

So the nice way to dismiss Obama is to say the country's not ready for him. It's also a handy way of taking a person off the hook. It's not that I'm not ready--oh no--it's just that the whole country's not ready, and we wouldn't want to hurt the country, would we? Poor country, it's just not ready.

On the surface, the line sounds so well-intentioned and reasonable. It bears asking, what is it we're not ready for? "Hail to the Chief" being played for a black man? Brown-skinned people at the head of the receiving line in the East Room? Even more of "those kind" sitting down (and not serving) at a state dinner? R&B playing on the lawn?

Maybe it's just that, well, race relations are still a little unstable, you know. Black folks and white folks aren't exactly living next door to each other all over the country. Going to the same churches. Sharing the same tennis clubs. Watching the same TV (well, o.k. so we watch a lot of the same shows) and listening to the same music (well, yes, so we do that, too) and cheering for the same sports teams (oh well, I give up).

Maybe it's just that we haven't had any African-Americans in positions of such high authority, so we need to take baby steps first, let the country get used to the idea.

Hmmm. Whoops again. Pardon us, Condoleeza Rice, Colon Powell, Clarence Thomas.

Or maybe it's just that all the old folks, loathe to change their ways, need to pass on first. Is THAT what my frat boy buddy down in Alabama is thinking? Wait till grandpa's gone, so he doesn't get the shivers. Then we can vote for Obama, or someone like him.

But let's turn the tables on this whole discussion. Sometimes you hear African-Americans saying the same thing. "We're just not ready." Often it's phrased as a question: "Are we ready?"

What lies behind this question is much more subtle, since no group would be more proud to see Obama elected than African Americans. But there are concerns. Those who lived through Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination fear for Obama's life. To see him up there with all those crowds--well, it's scary. But there's more. If Obama becomes President of the United States, people might just assume that the country's race problem has been solved, period. Obama raises his hand to take the oath, and presto: he becomes living proof that African Americans have nothing to complain about any more. No need for affirmative action anymore, no need for offices of minority affairs, diversity seminars, etc.

A final concern among African Americans: that Obama wins and his presidency doesn't turn out to be a complete success. Just as he could pave the way for other African American candidates in years to come, he could also poison that path if he fails as a president.

So there you have it: we're maybe not ready--white folks and black folks alike. And it's all because of race.

But isn't this tricky? If Obama calls it out--if he says, as he did recently in Missouri, that "they'll try to scare you because I don't look like the guys on the dollar bills"--he gets accused of playing the race card. Yet if he never acknowledges the fact that so many people are a bit queasy, he doesn't get the opportunity to help the country get past that queasiness.

It's a mine field if there ever was one. Nice white folks "aren't ready." Black folks sit on pins and needles, scared of the old saying, "be careful what you wish for." The McCain campaign, meanwhile, uses topsy-turvy logic to accuse Obama of something like racism. Or maybe they want us to believe Obama is actually EXPLOITING his race, as if being a black candidate gives him an edge.

How does that old expression go? If you believe that, then I've got a bridge to France I'd like to sell 'ya. Something like that. It makes as much sense as "we're not ready."