The Changing Complexion of American Politics
SCOTT SIMON, host:
Barack Obama may never be elected president. There's a long campaign ahead. But it's hard to escape the feeling. I don't really want to escape it. But to see him on stage Thursday night, thanking supporters for victory in the Iowa Democratic caucuses, reveal something exceptional about America. A dark-skinned man won the presidential contest in a state where very few people share the color of his skin.
This event doesn't stand alone or come out of nowhere. Senator Obama's nearest rival for president in his party is a woman; candidate with the most experience at different levels of government is Hispanic.
Among Republicans, one of the leading candidates is Italian American, another is Mormon, another is a senior citizen - all groups who have borne the sting of bigotry and disparagement. Seven of the nine members of the U.S. Supreme Court are now Roman Catholic. Millions of Americans may still remember a time when respectable people said Catholics couldn't be trusted in national office.
I wonder if the old Ku Kluxers who bombed Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 could have ever imagined that a 9-year-old African-American girl who heard the blast in her own church just two miles away would grow up to become U.S. secretary of state. I wonder how many people have voted for Bobby Jindal, the son of immigrants from India, who's about to become governor of Louisiana, grew up in homes where segregation was a vow.
When the Reverend Jesse Jackson ran for president, he thundered, our time has come. It was a cry that called out the pride of black voters and civil rights supporters who would battle to overcome the lingering curse of slavery. But when Senator Obama tells crowds this is our moment, he means a new generation of Americans who do not treat politics like an oldie station, replaying every conflict as Vietnam, every scandal as Watergate and every issue as black and white.
Now, race is a fact of life and politics. A candidate makes use of his or her identity just as they do their wealth, name or handsomeness. When we boast about diversity, it's hard not to keep score. There are a lot of sound reasons for good people not to vote for someone who's had as little experience in national office as Senator Obama. But this week, it seemed like race will not be a reason.
Some people have a political investment in refusing to see progress in saying the American people will never vote for someone who is black, a woman, Asian, Hispanic or whose name ends with a vowel. It confirms their view of America as a place that is unchanged and irredeemable. That's not the country we glimpsed this week.
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