As we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King's legacy today, it is impossible not to talk about race in the presidential campaign. After a year of dancing around the subject, the race conversation finally surfaced in the past few weeks in an unusual debate over Dr. King's legacy. But it was BET founder Bob Johnson, of all people, who introduced the film Guess Who's Coming To Dinner as a way to criticize Barack Obama.
Maybe Bob Johnson misunderstood the movie. In one of the most famous lines of the classic film, young Dr. John Wade Prentice (played by Sidney Poitier) confronts his father's racial baggage. "I'm your son. I love you. I always have and I always will," says Dr. Prentice. "But you think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man."
Forty years later, the same poignant line could have been delivered by Barack Obama to African Americans who questioned whether the young senator should run for president and doubted if he could win among whites. While many African Americans think of Obama as a black man, he thinks of himself as a man.
Certainly Senator Obama understands he is black, but he also understands that he need not be limited or defined by his race. For many black Americans, on the other hand, we're still learning that lesson.
A major reason why some African Americans were reluctant to embrace Obama's campaign was not because, as the media suggested, he wasn't "black enough." Instead, black Americans feared that America wasn't "colorblind enough."
They've seen the polls that show large majorities of Americans say they would vote for a black president, but they know that polls about race can be deceptive. When the polls showed David Dinkins in New York City and Doug Wilder in Virginia were cruising to comfortable victories, the two men barely eked out wins in their races.
Ironically, white Americans have been slightly more likely than black Americans to believe that America is ready for a black president. That's not because blacks are racists; it's because they're realists. Blacks are more likely than whites to believe that racism is still a problem in America, in part, because they're more likely than whites to experience it on a regular basis.
But for all the skepticism among African Americans, there was no mistaking the change that took place in Iowa and New Hampshire this past month. Whether or not Barack Obama wins the presidency, black America has moved further along toward the goal of racial equality.
The gap between Obama and the civil rights generation doesn't entirely explain the sudden shift. Although the civil rights generation produced Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, it also produced Colin Powell and Oprah Winfrey. There have always been black public figures who defied the conventional wisdom, and the black community has never been monolithic. But the community's aspirations grow higher and more attainable with each generation.
Nevertheless, black political candidates still bear the burden of representation. Hence, one television news program the past week questioned why several black leaders - including Al Sharpton, Maya Angelou and Sean "Diddy" Combs - had not yet endorsed Senator Obama. But who could imagine a news program asking why Billy Graham, Gore Vidal and Justin Timberlake had not yet endorsed John Edwards?
Colin Powell himself this week told PBS host Tavis Smiley that "we should see Barack as a candidate for president who happens to be black, and not [as] a black candidate for president."
Like General Powell, the Columbia and Harvard-educated Obama surely understands that he must be exceptional to be accepted by white America. Such was the case 40 years ago for Dr. John Wade Prentice, an eminent medical scholar with an impeccable educational pedigree.
In 1967, it was Joey Drayton (the young white idealist played by Katharine Houghton) who convinced her parents that an interracial marriage was possible and would not harm the children from the marriage. "She feels that every single one of our children will be President of the United States," Dr. Prentice told Joey's father (played by Spencer Tracy). "And they'll all have colorful administrations," he added.
For his part, though, Dr. Prentice's character was a bit more skeptical. When Mr. Drayton asks Dr. Prentice how he feels about the potential problem in raising their children, Poitier jokes, "Frankly, I think your daughter is a bit optimistic. I'd settle for Secretary of State."
Poitier's generation has grown up now, and they've already become Secretary of State (twice). The new generation wants something more. They don't want to be limited by the color of their skin, and they hope to be judged by the content of their character. And, as Barack Obama shows, they aren't afraid to be President.