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Published: Tuesday, 2/20/2007

Obama finds himself in a colorblind bind

WASHINGTON - Sen. Barack Obama's presidential quest has launched some revealing conversations, particularly about what makes a black person "black."

Even for those who think as I do that the answer is breathtakingly obvious, the question is not frivolous. For Mr. Obama, the son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, the emerging media narrative invites a re-examination of widely held assumptions. Is race a matter of color? Ancestry? Or experiences?

"There are African-Americans who don't think that you're black enough, who don't think that you have had the required experience," reporter Steve Kroft asked Mr. Obama as they cruised Chicago's South Side during a recent 60 Minutes profile.

"The truth of the matter is," Mr. Obama mused, gazing at the neighborhoods outside their vehicle's windows, "when I'm walking down the south side of Chicago and visiting my barbershop and playing basketball in some of these neighborhoods, those aren't questions I get asked."

No, those are the kind of questions some people ask about you when you're the first black presidential candidate to have a viable chance of winning.

"I also notice when I'm catching a cab," he quipped. "Nobody's confused about that, either."

That was a significant line, even if nobody really believes that the superstar freshman senator from Illinois would have much trouble hailing any taxi he wants these days. In our racially complicated society, you're not just the race - or races - that you say you are. You're also the race other people say you are.

Yet, the big question for past black presidential candidates has been whether they could get white votes. For Obama, the emerging question has been whether he can attract black votes, especially compared to frontrunner Hillary Clinton.

In Washington Post/ABC News polls in December and January, 60 percent of black voters said they would vote for the New York senator and former first lady compared to 40 percent for Mr. Obama. That surprised many people, who apparently expect all black voters to think alike.

The fact is, black voters can be just as discerning and skeptical about political candidates that they do not know well. Polls also have shown that about half of voters overall, including blacks, say they don't know enough about Mr. Obama to have an opinion about him.

Blacks worried about whether Mr. Obama is "black enough" might be reassured by the grumblings of others who think he's too black.

Mr. Obama quite sensibly observed in his 60 Minutes interview that he did not "decide" to be black. "If you look African-American in this society, you're treated as an African-American," he said, "and when you're a child, in particular, that is how you begin to identify yourself."

That response rankled talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh, who apparently thinks race is something we can put on or take off like a suit.

If Mr. Obama did not "decide" his race, Mr. Limbaugh declared, "Well, renounce it, then. If it's not something you want to be, if you didn't decide it, renounce it, become white!" Ah, if only it was that easy, el Rushbo.

Whether Mr. Obama had the "black American experience" before, he certainly appears to be getting it now. Part of that experience is to hear other people argue over what you should call yourself.

In fact, if you don't have the right to call yourself what you want, you don't have much freedom at all.

Besides, if you look back far enough, we're all "mixed."

Clarence Page's column is distributed by Tribune Media Services.



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