Sen. Barack Obama: Is He Black Enough?

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Barack Obama
Joe Wrinn/Harvard University

The 2008 Presidential campaign is in full swing, and voters are asking a lot of questions about the candidates. But Illinois Democratic Sen. Barack Obama has to answer one additional question: Is he black enough? Three African-American media commentators discuss why the question is asked and how it should be answered.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later in the program,: For decades, William Raspberry spoke his mind as a columnist for The Washington Post. Now he's trying to shape the minds of toddlers in his hometown. We'll tell you about it.

But first, the 2008 presidential campaign is in full swing, and voters are asking a lot of questions about the candidates. What will they do about the war in Iraq? What about health care? But one candidate has had to answer a question that nobody else is confronting. That candidate is Illinois Democrat Barack Obama, and the question is is he black enough? Many people think the question is unfair. But the issue keeps surfacing, so we thought we'd ask how black is black enough?

To answer that question, we brought together a panel of leading African-American radio talk show hosts, so joining me is WOL-AM radio host Joe Madison, author and former talk show personality with Syndication One, Karen Hunter, and WBON radio host, Roland Martin. Welcome, everybody.

Mr. ROLAND MARTIN (Radio Talk Show Host, WBON): Glad to be here.

MARTIN: So this black enough thing - how did this start, Joe Madison?

Mr. JOE MADISON (Radio Talk Show Host, WOL-AM): I don't know. I don't care, you know, is Giuliani Italian enough? He doesn't look like Dean Martin to me or any Italians I know. As a matter of fact, here at the NAACP convention, all of the Republican candidates who want to be their party's nominee, all of them, every last one of them refused to come and be part of a forum like you were a part of at Howard University. So the real question is is the Republican Party black enough?

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. MADISON: That's the real question. You know, being black is more than having an afro and an attitude. Look, I come out of the '60s. We used to be - talk about we were too bourgeois. We weren't black enough this. You weren't black if you didn't wear a dashiki. You weren't black if you were light skinned. I mean, this is such stupid foolishness. It shouldn't even be part of the political landscape.

MARTIN: Enough already, huh. Karen you wanted to say?

Ms. KAREN HUNTER (Author): You know I want to say let's look at who's raising these questions. I mean, you have someone who calls himself a foremost authority on our culture and our intellect, Cornel West, was one of the main people trumpeting this. And I'm questioning who are these people who are actually raising this issue?

MARTIN: Okay. Roland Martin, what about you? Now, you, obviously…

Mr. MARTIN: Well…

MARTIN: …have been covering the senator in Chicago, which is where your show is based. What started this?

Mr. MARTIN: This is not a new question, Michel, and that's most important thing. Obama faced this exact same question when he ran for the U.S. Senate. He faced the same question when he ran for the State Senate. I agree with Joe. I believe it's absolutely ridiculous that we even assert that, but black politicians have had to do this. You know, he has always been a - are you down? Are you going to be for the people? And so my listeners, a lot of them, they're not bourgeois. They're not sitting there middle class, and they throw those things out as well.

And so the real issue has to be in terms of what are the issues do you want a champion? You cannot see him - we'll all look at him and say, well, we're going to look at his past, look where he lives, look what he's done, look what he's championed. The bottom line is he is black. And actually, this went back - this really began to come out after he made his speech at the Democratic National Convention because a lot of - some black folks were offended when he said there's no black America, there's no white America, there's just one America.

And I actually ran a front-page story in the Chicago Defender when I was the executive editor with the exact same headline: Is he black enough? Then I had a four-part in my syndicated column to basically refute it, because I thought it was just ridiculous. But we have to own to the reality that African-Americans are talking about this, and they are asking, well, where does he stand? And part of this is the fact that a lot of folks don't know him.

MARTIN: Well, Karen, this is the reason why…

Ms. HUNTER: Yeah. (unintelligible) I actually wrote a column for the New York Daily News at that same convention, and I applauded him for that. Because, you know, we want to complain about inequality in this country, but when we finally have a candidate that can bridge these gaps, we want to throw all of these things at him. All I need to know as a black woman is that every night he goes to bed with a black woman. And it's not an arm piece-type of black woman that a lot of you so-called black men want to get. You know, it's not some chick that looks good on his arm.

This is a woman who's strong. She's intelligent. She brings a lot to the table on her own. And what I know about him is he's blacker than Hillary Clinton. He's blacker than Joe Biden. He's way, way blacker than Mitt Romney and all those guys on the Republican side. So when we want to start to question people's blackness, we need to ask where we need to go as a group of (unintelligible).

Mr. MADISON: I mean, I was sitting in Detroit here in the NAACP convention. I just had the mayor on, Kwame Kilpatrick. Real black name, right? At least half of it is. And, you know, he's telling me - and I hope when these Democratic candidates show up they want to talk about black, let them talk about the fact that there are 3,000 nursing jobs that need to go filled here, but there is no plan to educate the kids in the public school that's 87 percent black, and 5,000 people from predominantly white Canada cross the Detroit River every day to fill jobs in nursing. I hope that these are the issues that they'll talk about that are pertinent to black people.

MARTIN: But, Joe, when people call your show, when they call your show…

Mr. MADISON: Yeah?

MARTIN: …do they want to talk about this? Roland says when they call his show, they do.

Mr. MADISON: Will they talk about it?

MARTIN: Yeah. They want to talk about this black thing.

Mr. MADISON: Of course, well, you know, they - look, people talk about what they see and hear in the news and has raised - and they're raised on these artificial polls that they put up. Yeah, they talk, but it's talk radio, again. But they want to talk about more than that. The lines light up when we start talking money and sense. The lines light up when we start talking about immigration. The lines light up when we start talking about health care. So this is just one of those issues, but again, I'm not going to be voting for or against Obama in the presidential primary because he is or he is not black enough. I live in southeast Washington D.C.…

Ms. HUNTER: I am - I'm going to vote for him.

Mr. MADISON: …(unintelligible) the black folk…

MARTIN: Karen?

Mr. MADISON: …I know, that want to live over there. Are they black enough?

MARTIN: Karen?

Mr. MADISON: No, I said I'm going vote for him because he's black. You know what? This is the first time in my lifetime that I have an opportunity to actually cast a vote for somebody that I believe can take this country in a new direction. And the fact that he's black also says something to the world. We want to go around and fix everyone else's problems and tell the Middle East what's wrong with them and what they're doing wrong in Europe and every place else, but we have never dealt with the issue of race in this country, not on a level that's going to actually take us to another place.

And this man will say so many things if we vote him into office, so I'm voting for him because he's black. But he also happens to be someone that I believe can actually lead this country. We haven't had such a great leader over the last eight years.

MARTIN: Okay. Roland - Roland…

Mr. MADISON: But all the reason (unintelligible) you're not voting just because he's black, you just gave great - you gave about 10 great reasons to vote for him - leadership, new direction. Those are the reasons, I mean, I'm no spring chicken, but look, I had a chance to vote for Shirley Chisholm, Dick Gregory, Jesse Jackson twice. This is not (unintelligible)…

Ms. HUNTER: See that's where you messed up.

Mr. MADISON: …to America.

Mr. MARTIN: Michel?

MARTIN: Go ahead, Roland.

Mr. MARTIN: Michel, here's an important point that I think we have to recognize. African-Americans, historically, have not been able to vote for candidates that have run for a higher office. We've only had two African-Americans since Reconstruction who have been elected as governors. We've only had three African-Americans since Reconstruction who've been elected as senators.

And so we are used to, frankly, voting for individuals who are city council members, commissioners, state reps, state senators who typically will run from black districts. And so, they typically will speak to the issue that resonates with those constituents. And so what happens is when you run for a higher office, you're appealing to a broader group, and so African-Americans, they have this (unintelligible) talk to. And then the higher you go up, the less likely you are to speak to our issues.

And so there's just this kind of fear I hear from people saying, well, he's going to lose it. You know, he's not going to represent us. He's going - the people who'll give him money, he's going to speak for them. And I think part of that is what happens when you don't have a long history of black folks who've had those statewide jobs that, frankly, we've gotten used to those (unintelligible).

Ms. HUNTER: But Roland, let me ask you a question. All of these black folks that we've voted for in our communities, what have they done to progress the black cause? I mean, really, we can talk about it. And we can have Al Sharpton and everybody out there march about it. We can bury the N-word. But the reality is we still lag far behind white folks in earning, in home ownership, in education, and all of these things. And I look at this black towns, where they elect a mayor that's a crackhead, or in Newark where they keep electing somebody who has completely not done anything for the lower-class people, and you have to ask yourself what is black then?

Mr. MARTIN: I think also we can't be intellectual dishonest and saying that, well, there are gaps that remain. But the reality is there were wider gaps before you also had folks who were in office.

MARTIN: Roland, the folks who want to talk about is-he-black-enough issue, do you think some of it has to do with, as you said, it's a fear of once a person gets to a situation where he has to broaden his vision and represent a broader constituency, or do you think part of it, frankly, has to do with his heritage and being biracial? Do you think that being biracial for some reason creates feelings in people that somehow is coming out in this manner?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, first of all, I've heard both. There's a fear of black people that our politicians are selling out. There's a fear of them not representing us. And so, it's like we want to make sure that you're down with us. And so, we'll sit there and say well, he gave a speech in front of the Jewish lobby. He talked about Israel. And he gave a speech in front of these folks and talked about this. We want to make sure that he's going to talk about us. He's not going to leave us. And so this is what this fear is. And so, and as Karen actually made the point the earlier, and I've raised a point on our radio show - okay, if that is your belief, let's take all eight Democratic candidates and ask yourself, of all the ones on the stage, which ones are likely going to represent you? Obama or Biden, Richardson, Dodd, Clinton - go down the whole line.

And I say guys, you have to use some common sense here. We've had 43 presidents. They've all been white, they've all been male. Hello? You might want to wake up and say it's a good chance he's probably going to do even more for black folks than Bill Clinton did.

MARTIN: Karen? Go ahead, Joe Madison.

Mr. MADISON: (unintelligible). Be careful, because there's a black guy sitting on the Supreme Court who met with the…

Mr. MARTIN: I don't understand.

Ms. HUNTER: Who?

Mr. MADISON: Who met with (unintelligible)…

Mr. MARTIN: Well, we know his history, though, and since Obama…

MARTIN: Hold on, Roland. Let Joe finish.

Mr. MADISON: …and he swore he was a down brother. He swore up and down he was down. And look what he's done? So I'm…

Mr. MARTIN: But his stance…

MARTIN: But Joe, that would seem to confirm Roland's point, that perhaps people will have a legitimate reason to be concerned about whether folks may present themselves one way, but really not have the interests of the community at heart.

Mr. MADISON: Well, if that was his point, he's right, because Clarence Thomas is a classic example.

Mr. MARTIN: But you have to check the track record.

Mr. MADISON: Yeah, yeah. You're right.

Mr. MARTIN: (unintelligible)

MARTIN: Well, Karen…

Mr. MADISON: Absolutely right. We can also speak to this thing about…

Ms. HUNTER: Yes, Michel?

Ms. MADISON: …black politicians not delivering, and that we, you know - look, we've had centuries of white politicians that haven't delivered. Centuries. And many of these black mayors end up taking over cities that have lost their tax base because of white flight, and…

Ms. HUNTER: When are we going to stop to paying on politicians to do anything for us?

MARTIN: Go ahead, Karen.

Ms. HUNTER: My dad was raised in Newark, New Jersey, and he owned a corner store in a black neighborhood and he did very well for himself. And now that neighborhood is overrun by immigrants. And it's still a black neighborhood, but yet that dollar doesn't circulate within the black community. It goes out every single day. And that's our fault.

Mr. MADISON: That's not a politician's problem.

Ms. HUNTER: That's not a politician's fault. That's not the government's fault. That's our fault because we don't support our…

Mr. MADISON: That's not the government's problem. That's internal.

Ms. HUNTER: Exactly.

Mr. MADISON: That's a sense of self-value, that's…

Ms. HUNTER: But we shouldn't have this conversation about what Barack Obama's going to do for black America as if any politician really has that power. We have the power. When are we going to reclaim that?

Mr. MARTIN: Michel?

MARTIN: Yeah?

Mr. MARTIN: I just conducted a one-hour interview with Senator Obama that aired on TV1, where we spoke to specifically to black issues. One of the things that I have done is, like any of the candidates, if I had been a journalist and say, okay, what's their track record? What they did in the past as a politician speaks more to me than what they're saying to me right now.

And so anybody out there who's black, who's questioning, well, is he is black enough? Where has he stood - is a question of analyze the record. What Obama's been able to do, and you look at the polls. The more he's been out there, the more people are learning what he did, what he accomplished, and I think that's one of the reasons why you've seen his numbers go up among African-Americans.

MARTIN: Roland, what do you attribute the fact that African-American voters are often union members? And also African-American voters aren't completely solidified behind Obama? And I'm not saying that they should be. I mean, that's not my point. But what do you make of the fact that he has not locked down the African-American vote or the union vote, which was seen to be logical constituencies?

Mr. MARTIN: Because his primary opponent is Senator Hillary Clinton, who has been on the national stage for 25 years. Remember, he's only been on the national stage for three, and so there's a comfort level with what she has said and done. And so that's how you sort of make this comparison.

Ms. HUNTER: It's self-hatred, crab-in-a-barrel mentality. I had a discussion with Reverend Al, who didn't support Barack Obama. And I had to ask him. Is this professional jealousy? Do you want to be the only leader on the landscape? Can we not have other people that represent us?

Because black folks aren't monolithic. I'm a registered Republican. I have friends who are Democrats. We have discussion and debate every day about different issues. Nobody thinks the same just because you're black. So to have somebody represent black America is almost - it's not even insulting on some level, it's damaging to our progress.

MARTIN: But what did he say?

Mr. MADISON: All of the presidential…

MARTIN: I'm sorry, Joe. Hold on, let her…

Mr. MARTIN: …candidates who say they want the black vote not to come to an organization that is nonpartisan and simply take questions from people about issues that are important to us and for all of them? All of them? Not to agree and say and give the most lame excuse: We have schedule conflicts.

MARTIN: Hold on for a second. You said you talked to Reverend Al about this and said, look, is it professional jealousy? What did he say?

Ms. HUNTER: No, he said that, you know, we have to look at which candidates are going to do the best for us. And I said, Rev, at the end of the day, what have the Democrats done for black America?

So what, you know, we're being dishonest. And if we all jump on the Democratic side of every black is a Democrat, then they have done what they've been doing, which is take us for granted.

Mr. MADISON: All of the Democratic candidates are showing up to take questions, like they did at Howard University. And do you realize that all of the Republican candidates, every last one of them, turned down the NAACP and are not showing up for a presidential forum?

If I were a black Republican, I'd be on the phone right now to the RNC and tell them to reverse that decision, to get into this convention, come over here, talk to these delegates who come from coast to coast, border to border, because it's quiet in this camp.

The NAACP is not monolithic. I know. I served on this board for 14 years. I was the political director for 10 years. I know this organization inside and out. And there are black Republicans in there just like there are black independents and black Democrats.

And if the Republican Party wants our vote, then they ought to show up at this convention and at least be able to answer questions that are legitimate and that (unintelligible) to the floor right now…

Ms. HUNTER: Michel, that leads us back to your original question.

MARTIN: Okay, okay. All right. Go ahead, final point from you, Karen. Go ahead.

Ms. KAREN: Now, it leads us back to your original question: Does the NAACP represent black America?

Mr. MADISON: Oh, come on.

Ms. HUNTER: Does Al Sharpton represent Black America?

Mr. MADISON: Oh, come on. They've representing us for 98 years, they came out to only represent (unintelligible).

Ms. HUNTER: Will Barack Obama represent black America? We really need to start asking these questions.

Mr. MADISON: (unintelligible) say one thing. If you can find something better…

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. KAREN: …what does it mean to be a black American?

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. MARTIN: …how are you going to dignify that with an answer?

MARTIN: Okay. Roland, let me hear a final word from you.

Mr. MADISON: (unintelligible)

MARTIN: Roland - Joe, hold on, please. I'm sorry. We can't hear you if you're all going to talk over each other.

Mr. MARTIN: It's very simple. The more people learn about Obama, they're going to better understand who he is. Is he (unintelligible) with the people trying to figure out in terms of what his background is. And that's what he has articulated. And so that's why you've seen the bump. I do believe that, as just Joe stated a long time ago, we've got to get to the point where we stop with this nonsense of who is black enough and question what have you done, not what you're saying you're going to do. That's the most important thing.

MARTIN: Okay. We got to get to the point. We have to finish our segment. So thank you all for speaking with us.

Ms. MARTIN: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: We were talking to WVON radio host Roland Martin. He joined us by phone from Chicago. We were also joined by WOL AM radio host Joe Madison, the Black Eagle. He joined us on the phone from Detroit.

And we were also joined by author and former talk show personality with Syndication One, Karen Hunter. She spoke with us from our member station. Thank you so much for speaking with us, all of you.

Mr. MARTIN: Thanks a lot.

Mr. HUNTER: Thank you.

Mr. MADISON: God bless.

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