Litmus Test for Black Presidential Candidates
The recent controversy
regarding Sen. Barack Obama's 20-year relationship with his pastor,
mentor and spiritual adviser, Dr. Jeremiah Wright, has been instructive.
To this point, most African Americans were skeptical that a Black
president could be elected in our lifetimes. We thought the requirements
were nearly insurmountable: Build a national, 50-state political
organization; raise tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars;
possess top-notch academic and political credentials; and appeal
to a substantial number of White voters.
Obama has met these
requirements and more, giving us all hope that perhaps this goal
is attainable after all. But recent events have revealed an obstacle
that is may be difficult to surmount: The litmus test that says
a Black candidate must be completely disconnected from any Black
person who may be somewhat controversial. He must not only be completely
cut off from this individual, but the candidate must prove it by
denouncing, repudiating and disavowing not only the person's utterances,
but also the individual himself.
Apparently, to some
it doesn't matter that Obama has an Ivy League education from Harvard
Law School, was president of the Law Review, served his nation as
a community organizer, taught constitutional law, served as a state
senator and now a U.S. Senator. It doesn't matter that he's led
an exemplary adult life; married a woman who possesses the same
Ivy League credentials as he does; has two beautiful daughters and
is a dedicated husband and father. It doesn't matter that Obama
has run one of the best political campaigns we've seen, refusing
to resort to mudslinging and gutter politics, bringing millions
of new voters into the Democratic Party.
What really matters,
apparently, is that he has a long-time friend, Wright, who spent
six years in the Marines serving his country, is known nationwide
as a Biblical scholar, but has made some controversial statements
from the pulpit. The problem with this absurd litmus test is that
it eliminates virtually any African American who has excelled and
who could, therefore, be on a path to the presidency.
This litmus test denies
the very history of our nation and forces any potential Black candidate
to completely separate himself from the African-American community.
By this standard, the candidate wouldn't be Black at all – just
a person who happens to have more melanin than most, but whose views
and perspective reflect the majority population. These are the kinds
of candidates Republicans seem to like, as evidenced by the African
Americans the party promotes.
What makes this litmus
test challenging is our nation's post-civil rights history, which
Obama pointed out in his extraordinary speech this week. The activists
of the Civil Rights Movement were primarily college students and
community leaders who challenged the American government to recognize
Blacks as full citizens. These activists, Rev. Wright among them,
faced violence and the threat of death by extremist groups and complicit
local law enforcement officials on a regular basis. Many spent days
in jail, became radical -- understandably so -- and have emotional
scars. Many still possess some of the anger from those times and
many of them now serve in positions in our government, which is
a path to higher political office. Most of the Black members of
Congress who are over the age of 60 were active in the Civil Rights
Movement. The same is true for Blacks elected to state government.
These products of the
1960s are now in their 60s, but the generation after them -- their
children -- is really the one that benefited from their efforts
to right the wrongs of America's past. Obama represents the next
generation, but he has been mentored by those who actually went
before him, such as Rev. Wright and Illinois Senate President Emil
Jones. Interestingly, Wright, who has been demonized as racist by
the media and Republican zealots, will receive an award later this
month from the divinity school at Texas Christian University, a
predominantly White religious institution.
There are many well-educated
African Americans who have relatives and friends who were connected
with Movement leaders, members of the Black Panther Party or even
the Nation of Islam. Attending an Ivy League institution can actually
produce anxiety for some African Americans who may have been ambivalent
Michelle Obama's thesis
while attending Princeton University, where she referred to her
experiences, is revealing: "i have found that at Princeton, no matter
how liberal and open-minded some of my white professors and classmates
try to be toward me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus;
as if I really don't belong," she wrote in 1985. "Regardless of
the circumstances under which I interact with whites at Princeton,
it often seems as if, to them, I will always be black first and
a student second."
As a 1980 graduate of
Georgetown University, President Bill Clinton's alma mater, I closely
identify with Michelle Obama's remarks because my experience mirrored
hers. I spent four years in those hallowed halls often feeling like
the invisible woman. During one class on the Social Responsibilities
of Business in which I was the only Black student, there was actually
a discussion in my presence about why Blacks in the NFL were not
smart enough to be quarterbacks, as if I didn't exist. These sorts
of slights are ones that are not easily forgotten. They don't keep
one from achieving, but they can affect one's attitude and point
The 1995 Million Man
March in Washington, D.C., which was spearheaded by Nation of Islam
Minister Louis Farakkhan, was attended by hundreds of thousands
of Black men from all educational and socio-economic backgrounds.
Are these men, as well as their friends and relatives, now barred
from seeking high office? In the future, will they be subjected
to video clips, replayed ad nauseum by the mainstream media, of
them clapping as Farakkhan speaks from the podium?
It is conceivable that
any credible person who has the best interests of the African-American
community at heart would denounce, repudiate and reject the stalwart
individuals who fought, and continue to fight, on the front lines
for freedom. They may not agree with all of their statements, but
these warriors have given too much of themselves to be rejected
by the community which benefited from their work.
If the media and members of the Democratic and Republican political
establishments require a Black presidential candidate to adhere
to this absurd litmus test, we will have many more decades of the
same old politics with the same old players. Obama's navigation
of this political minefield will be illuminating for future generations.
Gwen Richardson is an entrepreneur and author based in Houston,
Texas. Her new book is titled: Why African Americans Can't Get
Ahead: And How We Can Solve It With Group Economics. Richardson
is currently writing a book about the 2008 presidential election.
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