Black Voters Aren't Fully Sold on Obama

Sen. Barack Obama may be the first African-American candidate to enter a presidential race as one of the front-runners. But can the Illinois Democrat command the black vote? That remains unclear.

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Illinois Senator Barack Obama is expected to announce tomorrow that he is a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president. He's the first African-American to enter a presidential race as one of the frontrunners, but he faces resistance from some of his fellow black officials.

At the moment, polls show him trailing Hillary Clinton among black voters, sometimes by wide margins. NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams reports.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Senator Obama's surprising and fast rise has caught black leaders off guard. Several say they don't know him. Others point out that they have long-standing ties to other candidates, notably Senator Hillary Clinton.

The debate over Obama is most often heard among the political and academic elite and there's little evidence it's reached the black grass roots. But there are widespread questions about whether this son of a white American mother and a black Kenyan father really understands the black American experience.

David Bositis is senior researcher at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black think-tank in Washington.

DAVID BOSITIS: Some people have mentioned Barack Obama doesn't have the slave heritage that most African-Americans have.

WILLIAMS: Carol Swain, an African-American political scientist at Vanderbilt University, sees it differently.

CAROL SWAIN: Barack Obama says he's black. He's married to a black woman and he has black children. That makes him black enough for me and I believe most of the people.

WILLIAMS: Some of the discomfort comes from black officials taken aback by the strong reception Senator Obama gets among white voters. That reception is a sharp contrast to the treatment other black candidates for the White House have received.

Kojo Nnamdi is a black radio talk-show host in Washington, D.C.

KOJO NNAMDI: If a black candidate seems to be supported by a very large number of white people in the way that Barack Obama has become kind of a rock star in the Democratic Party, it immediately casts suspicion on him in the eyes of some black people.

WILLIAMS: These identity issues have long been a struggle for the 45-year-old Obama. Born in Hawaii, he spent much of his childhood in Indonesia before attending Ivy League schools. He's always identified as black. And when he left law school, he became a community organizer in Chicago.

But when he ran for Congress in 2000, the identity issue emerged. His opponent was incumbent Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther with a long history of civil rights activism.

BOBBY RUSH: I shed blood on the streets of Chicago on behalf of the African-American community. And here was a guy who came in and said, well, you know, I went to Harvard and so I should be your leader. That didn't appeal to the broadest constituency for that congressional race. But now in terms of a Senate race, in terms of a presidential race, you deal with broader issues as supposed to the retail issues.

WILLIAMS: Congressman Rush soundly defeated Obama, winning 60 percent of the vote. But Obama rose from that defeat four years later, winning 70 percent of the statewide vote for U.S. Senate. Congressman Rush concedes he himself never could have won that much white support.

RUSH: I'm a race politician and he's not. I don't compromise. I don't step back. I don't try to deny. I'm proud to be an African-American.

WILLIAMS: An added factor for Obama is his light skin color. Other black politicians have been light-skinned but all had their political base in the black community. Senator Obama's bi-racial profile is a plus with the younger, increasingly multi-racial America. This generation shift from racial debates tied to guilt and anger over slavery opens the door to a new kind of black politics that is personified by Senator Obama.

The Joint Center's David Bositis.

BOSITIS: Harold Ford Jr., Artur Davis, Corey Booker, I see a new generation of younger black politicians who are eager to go to the top. Their aim for the top is not going to be achieved by appealing to the crimes of white people against African-Americans in the past or to appeals to their guilt. It's going to be achieved by appealing to a common American experience.

WILLIAMS: Bobby Rush, the former Black Panther, sees a possible advantage in Obama's candidacy.

RUSH: Look, man, Moses was able to defeat the pharaoh because Moses knew the castle. And so Moses knew pharaoh and pharaoh land. If Obama has certain proclivities and he has an appeal to the broader body politic in America, we have to take the chance.

WILLIAMS: One thing African-American politicians and experts agree on is that if Senator Obama wins the Democratic nomination, all these discussions will immediately be dismissed. He will have the overwhelming backing of black leaders and black voters.

Juan Williams, NPR News.

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