BARACK OBAMA is running an astonishing campaign. Not only is he doing far better in the polls than any black presidential candidate in American history, but he has also raised more money than any of the candidates in either party except Hillary Clinton.
Most amazing, Mr. Obama has built his political base among white voters. He relies on unprecedented support among whites for a black candidate. Among black voters nationwide, he actually trails Hillary Clinton by nine percentage points, according to one recent poll.
At first glance, the black-white response to Mr. Obama appears to represent breathtaking progress toward the day when candidates and voters are able to get beyond race. But to say the least, it is very odd that black voters are split over Mr. Obama’s strong and realistic effort to reach where no black candidate has gone before. Their reaction looks less like post-racial political idealism than the latest in self-defeating black politics.
Mr. Obama’s success is creating anxiety, uncertainty and more than a little jealousy among older black politicians. Black political and community activists still rooted in the politics of the 1960s civil rights movement are suspicious about why so many white people find this black man so acceptable.
Much of this suspicion springs from Mr. Obama’s background. He was too young to march with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His mother is white and his father was a black Kenyan. Mr. Obama grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, then went on to the Ivy League, attending Columbia for college and Harvard for law school. He did not work his way up the political ladder through black politics, and in fact he lost a race for a Chicago Congressional seat to Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther.
In an interview with National Public Radio earlier this year, Mr. Obama acknowledged being out of step with the way most black politicians approach white America. “In the history of African-American politics in this country there has always been some tension between speaking in universal terms and speaking in very race-specific terms about the plight of the African-American community,” he said. “By virtue of my background, you know, I am more likely to speak in universal terms.”
The alienation, anger and pessimism that mark speeches from major black American leaders are missing from Mr. Obama’s speeches. He talks about America as a “magical place” of diversity and immigration. He appeals to the King-like dream of getting past the racial divide to a place where the sons of slaves and the sons of slave owners can pick the best president without regard to skin color.
Mr. Obama’s biography and rhetoric have led to mean-spirited questions about whether he is “black enough,” whether he is “acting like he’s white,” as a South Carolina newspaper reported Jesse Jackson said of him. But the more serious question being asked about Mr. Obama by skeptical black voters is this: Whose values and priorities will he represent if he wins the White House?
As he claims to proudly represent a historically oppressed minority, Mr. Obama has to answer the question. Too many black politicians have hidden behind their skin color to avoid it.
Fifty percent of black Americans say Mr. Obama shares their values, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center. But that still leaves another half who dismiss him as having only “some” or “not much/not at all” in common with the values of black Americans.
There is a widening split over values inside black America. Sixty-one percent of black Americans, according to the Pew poll, believe that the values of middle-class and poor blacks are becoming “more different.” Inside black America, people with at least some college education are the most likely to see Mr. Obama as “sharing the black community’s values and interests a lot.” But only 41 percent of blacks with a high school education or less see Mr. Obama as part of the black community.
Overall, only 29 percent of people of all colors say Mr. Obama reflects black values. He is viewed as the epitome of what Senator Joe Biden artlessly called the “clean” and “articulate” part of black America — the rising number of black people who tell pollsters they find themselves in sync with most white Americans on values and priorities.
And in a nation where a third of the population is now made up of people of color, Mr. Obama is in the vanguard of a new brand of multi-racial politics. He is asking voters to move with him beyond race and beyond the civil rights movement to a politics of shared values. If black and white voters alike react to Mr. Obama’s values, then he will really have taken the nation into post-racial politics.