Signs of Progress

NEWSWEEK’s Richard Wolffe about his interview with the Democratic presidential hopeful

By Ellis Cose

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His is a peculiarly American paradox: Barack Obama is both transracial and largely defined by race. He stands with one foot in a longed-for postracial future and the other in America’s thoroughly racialized past. That reality, along with his stirring message of hope, gives his candidacy much of its power. It also presents Obama with a challenge: to win the presidency, he must convince white Americans he speaks for them, while convincing Americans of color he is uniquely their own.

That Obama cannot take the “minority vote” for granted is a reflection of progress in America’s struggle to get beyond race. It also is a reflection of the unprecedented diversity among Democratic presidential candidates. With a black man, a Latino—and a white woman, of course—in the race, clan solidarity is less of an issue for minority voters than at points in the past. “Usually, when you have one [person of color] in a contest, there is a rush to support them … but some of that has been lost,” observes California Community Foundation president Antonia Hernández, former head of the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund. A generational shift is taking place, too. Breaking racial, gender and ethnic barriers is simply not as big of a deal to younger voters as it was to those forged in the movements of the 1960s. And Bill and Hillary Clinton have worked hard to strengthen ties with minority communities, which weakens the lure of ethnic solidarity.

Obama and Bill Richardson, a Latino and governor of New Mexico, were warmly received at the annual meeting of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Orlando, Fla., earlier this month, but Clinton got more applause. She connected easily with the heavily Latino audience, where as Obama appeared “defensive” when asked about his support for legislation authorizing a reinforced double-layer fence along much of the U.S.-Mexican border, recalls NALEO educational-fund board member Henry Fernandez. In a national poll conducted for the Latino Policy Coalition, Clinton garnered 60 percent of the votes from prospective Latino voters. Obama and Richardson received 12 and 9 percent, respectively. Part of the problem, for both Obama and Richardson, is that they are relatively unknown among Latinos. Indeed, many Latinos don’t even realize Richardson is Latino.

That will change, no doubt, as the candidates make more-targeted appeals, and as ethnic loyalties begin to play out. “If Obama is the actual nominee, we cannot help but root for him,” says Fernandez. “A person of color is a person of color, whether Hispanic or Asian. If Barack makes it, we make it.” Some Asian-Americans feel the same way, given Obama’s Hawaiian roots and his half Indonesian sister. While excitement about Obama’s candidacy stems in part from his ethnic background, it has more to do with his message of hope and responsibility, which “really resonates strongly with many Asian-Americans,” particularly strivers from immigrant backgrounds, says Karen Narasaki, president of the Asian American Justice Center.

Race may only be one factor in a candidacy, but it can still be a big one. In the new NEWSWEEK Poll, 80 percent of registered voters said they would vote for a qualified Hispanic—but only 40 percent thought the country was “ready to elect a Hispanic president.” (A clear majority of Americans deemed the country ready to elect a female or an African-American.) The numbers may well be rooted in concern and hostility stirred up by this year’s polarizing debate on immigration. They could also be due to the fact that a Latino politician with Barack Obama’s charisma has not yet surfaced on the national level. Richardson’s inability so far to generate excitement may have less to do with his ethnicity than with his style. “He just doesn’t excite,” says Nicolás Vaca, author of “The Presumed Alliance,” a book that explores black-Latino politics.

But even without an exciting Latino candidate, Latino voters matter a great deal. In a bid for greater influence, many states with large Latino populations, including California, Illinois and Texas, have scheduled earlier primaries. This race “will be a contest for the hearts and minds of Latinos,” John Bueno, NALEO’s president, recently declared.

That may be something of an overstatement, but it’s clear that Obama is not the only Democratic candidate who needs to appeal to diverse constituencies. It has become America’s challenge to articulate a vision that both acknowledges and transcends the differences that have defined us for so long. Obama gets that. The beauty of this present moment is that a lot of other people get it too.

With Jemimah Noonoo