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Defining What Obama Candidacy Means to African-American Voters


The emerging popularity of first-term Democratic Senator Barack Obama has led this month to the launching of his presidential candidacy for 2008 and campaign visits to early party primary states. In many ways, the African-American Obama is believed to have the appeal to bridge racial differences and win enough white votes to make him a serious national candidate. Some blacks are not convinced his voice best represents African-American concerns. Others find greater support for their cause by backing longtime political allies Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. With about a year to go before the nation’s first primary election, Professor Michael Fauntroy, who teaches political science at Virginia’s George Mason University, says the campaign will help voters define what Senator Obama’s candidacy means to African-Americans.

“It really does force black America to have an honest dialogue with itself about what it means to be a black candidate. Now all of a sudden, you hear people say he’s really not black, but that’s a silly slap at him. I think that all this talk about his candidacy and his background stems from the fact that his origins are very different from most other black Americans in that he didn’t have forefathers who were slaves in the American South, for example,” said Fauntroy.

Illinois Senator Barack Obama was raised by his Kenyan-born father and caucasian American mother far away from surroundings resembling the inner city or rural Southern US communities that African-Americans identify with. The Senator attended Harvard Law School and spent parts of his childhood living in Hawaii and overseas in Indonesia. Given Obama’s allure for a wide range of Americans of different ages and ethnic backgrounds, Professor Fauntroy says he will have to campaign in a deracialized way that doesn’t intimidate whites along traditional cultural divides like poverty, affirmative action, and neglected community rehabilitation from disasters like Hurricane Katrina.

“He personally would not want to win the Presidential campaign without any black support. And so he has to walk this line and campaign in a way that is attractive to African-Americans and won’t scare whites, because if he scares whites, he can’t win. And if he scares or angers African-Americans, it would be very difficult for him to win as well,” he says.

On the other hand, Fauntroy says he does not think candidate Obama’s appeal to whites delegitimizes his credibility as a mainstream African-American candidate, even among US blacks.

“Many of the things that are of concern to black America are also of concern to white America. Black Americans are just as interested in good schools and safe streets as anyone else….and access to health care. So I think that in some respects, African-Americans are going to have to come to grips with the fact that the black candidate they get may not be as exclusively black as they want. Many times, black Americans hold other blacks to a litmus test that’s much higher than they would anyone else,” he said.

Michael Fauntroy is the author of a new book entitled Republicans and the Black Vote, to be published later this year. His columns and articles may be read on his internet website at http://www.michaelfauntroy.com

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