Election Inspires Minority Leaders To Aim High

As Barack Obama prepares to become America's first African-American president, writer Mark Oppenheimer discusses his recent article in Slate Magazine about how other minority groups see the possibility of one of their own becoming president.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, Washington power player Vernon Jordan shares what's on his playlist, and I'll share some of my thoughts about Michelle Obama's new life.

But first, the Obama presidency represents the fulfillment of a dream for many African-Americans, something many thought they would never see. But what about other Americans who are members of religious, racial or ethnic minorities? When will they see one of their own make history in the White House?

Mark Oppenheimer recently wrote about that for Slate, the online magazine. And he joins us now from New Haven, Connecticut. Welcome, thanks for joining us.

Mr. MARK OPPENHEIMER (Columnist, Slate): Thank you. Thank you.

MARTIN: Now, you start the piece by saying, at long last, my people have an answer to the question, when will we have a Jewish president? And the answer, it turns out, is not before we have a black president. Now I know we're all supposed to be all post-racial and everything, but do you think that most groups do this, that they actually - they have these conversations among themselves, as it were?

Mr. OPPENHEIMER: You know, Michel, I certainly hope so. Otherwise, Jews are just really, really strange.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OPPENHEIMER: You know, I like to think that in every ethnic group, when the blinds are drawn and no one else is listening in, there's all sorts of racialist talk and ethnic talk. And you know, it's part of what makes life interesting. You know, blacks aren't the only people with the barbershop, so to speak.

MARTIN: Well put. Now there were no Jewish Americans on a major ticket this year, but there was last time, in 2004. Now since you've given us the in-group perspective...

Mr. OPPENHEIMER: Right.

MARTIN: Do you think that this was experienced as a setback by Jewish Americans?

Mr. OPPENHEIMER: That there wasn't a...

MARTIN: That there was not.

Mr. OPPENHEIMER: A Joe Lieberman this year?

MARTIN: Yeah.

Mr. OPPENHEIMER: No, I don't think so. I mean, Joe Lieberman on the ticket - to give the inside perspective, as one of, you know, five or six million American Jews.

MARTIN: Whom you've all spoken to personally, so you know exactly...

Mr. OPPENHEIMER: I do a lot of interviewing. I'm very industrious.

MARTIN: Exactly.

Mr. OPPENHEIMER: Joe Lieberman was experienced differently by different Jewish groups. There was still - especially, I think, among older Jews, a sense that you don't want to be too out there in the public. There was a sense that, you know, having a Jew on the ticket can only be bad for the Jews because if the ticket loses, which of course it did, they'll blame the Jews. Now, as it turned out, I don't think that people held Lieberman accountable for Al Gore's loss. But it was not a position that everybody felt comfortable with or celebrated.

MARTIN: Did you ever feel that there was any fear of failure going on? Because I know - and I'm giving you the in-group perspective, and although, you know, 34, 36 million African-Americans because of course I've spoken to all of them. We're all, you know, related.

Mr. OPPENHEIMER: Good. Good.

MARTIN: So I think that there was some subtext of fear of failure. You know, what if Obama doesn't succeed or what if he makes some big gaffe, does this reflect on everybody? Do you think that there's some of that, too?

Mr. OPPENHEIMER: Oh, yes. I mean, I think a lot of people wondered after Gore lost, you know, when will it happen next? I mean, if anyone perceived it as being the fault of having a Jew on the ticket. Again, I don't think too many people did. But to the extent that anyone did, people may have felt, well, it's now going to be 16 or 20 or 24 years before anyone takes that risk again. And I think that Obama's victory is thus - whatever one thinks of his politics - is thus, you know, cause for celebration for a lot of ethnic groups. Because now there's a sense, well, OK, we can all be on tickets now and know that race isn't going to keep us from winning just because we happen to have a Japanese American or a Jew or a Mormon on the ticket.

MARTIN: So, in fact, your piece is a guide to which minority group has the best chance to win the White House next. Let's go down the list, as it were.

Mr. OPPENHEIMER: Sure.

MARTIN: There was - first of all, the women.

Mr. OPPENHEIMER: The women, who aren't a minority, of course. They're a majority in this country, and especially when you look at people who are eligible to vote, they are an even bigger majority because so many men have either - have been stripped of the right to vote because of felony convictions. So if women decided to all band together and all vote for the same person, they could always decide who the president is.

MARTIN: Interesting to contemplate given that, you know, women, that's a kind of a big group. I know all of them personally myself, too, being one myself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But you've got Sarah Palin and then you've also got a Hillary Clinton. Seems kind of hard to envision that everybody would band together for...

Mr. OPPENHEIMER: A very diverse group. It's unlikely that they're going to get everyone behind the same candidate.

MARTIN: Well, the Latter Day Saints. Latter Day Saints. Now of course, there was a member of this faith, Mitt Romney, who ran for president earlier this year on the Republican side.

Mr. OPPENHEIMER: Right. And you've got the lingo right. As I point out in the article, Mormons will often among themselves refer to each other as saints or as being LDS, Latter Day Saints. And this is a group that I said has a very good chance of having one of its own in the White House fairly soon. I, in fact, went out on a limb and said that after a woman, the next group that hasn't been represented that will be will be Mormons. Fairly large group. Millions of them in America, more than, say, Episcopalians, which is John McCain's religious group. Fairly wealthy. A lot of them are involved in business and commerce, and they tend to support their own, as many ethnic groups do. If you look at where Mitt Romney's contributions came from, Utah, where his Mormon brethren often live, huge numbers of dollars coming out of Utah for Mitt Romney. So ethnic solidarity would help any Mormon is was running for president, I think.

MARTIN: The Muslims. Muslims, you may have heard - sorry, you start this section: Muslims, you may have heard, have a PR problem. See now, I might argue that since so many people think Barack Obama is a Muslim that maybe it's not as significant as it was initially. It's just because in fact there are those who probably voted for him thinking he is a Muslim anyway.

Mr. OPPENHEIMER: Well, we know that about 20 percent of Texans, according to one poll, think that he is a Muslim. How many of them voted for him, we don't know. But it stands to reason that some of them did, thinking, OK, we'll have a Muslim president. To the extent that anyone thinks he's a Muslim, he's cracked that door wide open, right?

The bigger problem for Muslims, I think, in terms of getting a Muslim to the presidency, are that there very, very few Muslim politicians in the pipeline. There are only two Muslim members of Congress, and both of them are African-Americans who were not born Muslim. So you have Keith Ellison from Minnesota, who was raised Catholic, and Andre Carson, who was raised Baptist.

MARTIN: Of Indiana.

Mr. OPPENHEIMER: Yep. So you do have two Muslims in Congress. Whether or not they would get a lot of the ethnic, Arab or Persian votes from which many Muslim Americans come is hard to know because they were not elected by fellow Muslims. I mean, Keith Ellison did not get to Congress from Minnesota because of Muslim votes. It was the Lutherans up there who sent him.

MARTIN: Not to give any of these groups short shrift(ph), but you do analyze the chances of gays and lesbians, atheists, south Asians. But Hispanics, like, are at the end the line here, man. Hello? Have you not checked the census lately?

Mr. OPPENHEIMER: Right. Here's where I come clean and confess that I'm fallible. What happened there was that in the original draft of the piece I completely forgot to mention Hispanics and East Asians, so Japanese and Chinese-Americans and so forth. It was completely an oversight on my part.

MARTIN: An oversight because you've been living on the space shuttle where there are no Latinos, what?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OPPENHEIMER: I've been living on a space shuttle. Also, all of my wittiest lines, all of my cleverest turns of phrase had to do atheists, Muslims, Mormons and so forth. So once I'd gotten done inserting all of my great bits of writing into descriptions of those groups, I just forgot, and then the nice thing about writing for online publication like Slate is you immediately get a flurry of emails sent into the Web - posted on the Web site, sent to you personally because people track you down saying, come on, man, the Hispanics. So I immediately said, oh, my God. That was crazy. And that's why it got tacked on on the end.

MARTIN: Obviously, this piece is tongue and cheek, but there is also a serious subtext to it, which is that one group sort of vaulting the barrier, as it were, does create a sense of possibility for other people. So if you were in Vegas and you were going to make a guess of which group might send the next non-white Protestant male elected as the president, if that makes sense, which group would you put your money on?

Mr. OPPENHEIMER: I think definitely the women. Again, not a minority group exactly, a majority, but people were so impressed by Hillary Clinton's performance this year. Interestingly, she reached out beyond what had been considered the traditional northeast, elite, liberal Clinton wing of the party to become the candidate of the working class in the race against Obama. So the people from Kentucky and West Virginia, the Appalachians, the whites of lower education were responding to her, and I think that coalition that she almost rode to the nomination says that a woman can do anything in this country.

MARTIN: And not to be hurtful to anyone, but which group would you think least likely?

Mr. OPPENHEIMER: Well, it will be hurtful to them, but the atheists are going to have a really, really hard time. It's a much-despised minority. A Gallup poll from 2007 showed that people would rather have a Mormon president, people would rather have a gay president than have an atheist president. The idea of a candidate publicly saying, I just don't believe in God, is simply too much for the majority of Americans to handle, in fact. The majority of Americans said, no atheist for president.

MARTIN: Good to know.

Mr. OPPENHEIMER: Not for the atheists. Not for the atheists.

MARTIN: Mark Oppenheimer is director of the Yale Journalism Initiative and a frequent contributor to Slate magazine. If you want to read the piece in its entirety, we'll have a link on our Web site. Mark Oppenheimer, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. OPPENHEIMER: Anytime. Thanks.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: