Will American Voters Elect a Black President? While a majority of U.S. voters say they would vote for a black presidential candidate, many people say the United States is still not likely to put an African-American in the Oval Office quite yet. Michele Norris talks with campaign strategist Donna Brazile.
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Will American Voters Elect a Black President?

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Will American Voters Elect a Black President?

Will American Voters Elect a Black President?

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

Any person born in the U.S. is allowed to run for president. That's the law, as long as you're at least 35 years old. But if you look at the portraits hanging along the walls of the White House, what you see is a parade of white men. That presidential profile may be closer than ever to changing with the much-hyped possibility that Senators Barack Obama or Hillary Rodham Clinton might make a run for the White House.

Tomorrow, we'll look at the question of whether America is ready to elect a woman president. Today, could a black person win the presidency in 2008? Has America traveled far enough from its racist past to elect a black Commander in Chief?

Unidentified Man #1: A black president? No. Are you crazy? Come on. Who we kidding? We are a country founded in racism and equity fits nowhere in that.

Unidentified Man #2: I think that America's willing and able to elect a black president, again based on the platform and conviction of that particular person. I don't think it matters if they're black or white.

Unidentified Woman #1: They're not ready for that. No, because there'd be threats going around and be ready to shoot the people. And we may get senators; we'll get the governors, mayors. I think that's as far as they're going to let it go.

Unidentified Woman #2: I think that there are some black people that are highly qualified and would make great presidents but I don't think this country would elect a black president at this time. And I'm kind of ashamed to say that.

NORRIS: What you're hearing is our unscientific survey in Athens, Ohio, Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Brooklyn, New York. That was Jacqueline McElroy (ph), Sheila Scott, Bob Evans and Lloyd Porter.

What we heard anecdotally was a lot of skepticism about a black candidate's electability and that pessimism was at odds with some national polls. A CNN survey released last week found 62 percent of voters think America is ready to elect a black president. But among blacks surveyed, that number drops. Fifty-four percent believe America is ready; forty-two percent said no, not ready.

Donna Brazile has been pouring over polling data. Brazile is a seasoned campaign strategist and she says a candidate like Senator Obama will have to mobilize blacks who are enthusiastic about his leadership but nonetheless question his ability to win.

Ms. DONNA BRAZILE (Brazile & Associates): He's going to have to go into the living rooms, go sit on the front porch, and sort of chew the fat and talk to people about his own experiences narrative. Unlike Jesse Jackson and Shirley Chisholm and others who experienced the Jim Crow of American politics, Barack Obama did not.

He comes from a mixed-race family. He was raised in Hawaii. He did not come from the protest era in American politics, where African Americans essentially, had to knock down the door to get into the political fray. And I think he can sit on that porch and say you know, I represent something new and different in American politics. I believe I can bridge those racial divides.

NORRIS: When you introduce race or gender into presidential politics, you have a bit of a novelty aspect and some are already saying that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, should she run, is almost like a novelty act. How do the candidates deal with that?

Ms. BRAZILE: Look, the other candidates will ignore the fact that they are black. They will ignore it. They will campaign in the black community. Hillary Clinton is picking up the phone; she's calling every black activist and black leader that has ever been known to humankind.

So they're not going to concede the black vote. The black vote, remember, in the Democratic party, it is essential in order to win, to get the black voter or at least have a substantial number of blacks behind your candidacy.

NORRIS: And I think I hear you saying, that a black candidate can't not entirely clear assume that black voters will line up behind him or her?

Ms. BRAZILE: Well, first of all, I would caution any candidate not to take the black vote for granted. Not to assume because of, in Barack's case, because he's black, or in Hillary's case, because her husband was considered the first black president.

I would suggest that they bring to their kitchen table African Americans who know a little bit about the political process that can help them navigate the political waters. Already Barack has talked to Reverend Jesse Jackson; he's reached out to Reverend Sharpton. That's smart politics. I suggest that the other candidates should do the same.

NORRIS: I have already heard grumblings from some black politicians or black political staffers here in Washington, D.C. who say it seems like he's trying to some way distance himself from his blackness in order to make himself more appealing to white voters and that makes them uncomfortable.

Ms. BRAZILE: You know, I don't feel uncomfortable.

NORRIS: But some do.

Ms. BRAZILE: I understand they do and I think that's because they've been accustomed to a certain kind of candidate. We've been accustomed to what I call the protest candidates, the ones that, you know, were they black enough?

But now we have a politician that's coming to us, not from the civil rights chapter but the chapter that Martin Luther King wanted us to get to. It's time that we finally celebrate who we are. Not what America wanted us to become, but who we have become. And Barack is part of the American experience.

NORRIS: To the extent, though, that there this discomfort, these kinds of quiet grumblings that you're starting to hear in Washington, does he have to confront that and if he does, how? How does he deal with the so-called soul patrol?

Ms. BRAZILE: Well, you know I think first of all he should dispatch Michelle, his wife, to deal with those naysayers and those who don't understand how black he is and how conscientious he is of his own past and his history. You know, I think Michelle it's time enough for anybody who has concerns.

NORRIS: Donna Brazile, thanks so much for coming in to talk to us.

Ms. BRAZILE: Thank you.

NORRIS: Donna Brazile is a Democratic strategist. She runs her own political consulting firm called Brazile & Associates.

Ms. JANELLA (ph) YOUNG: I think it depends on how palatable the black person is. I think if he's a palatable personality, I think with Colin Powell that was a personality that it seemed society was willing to accept.

Unidentified Man #3: There's a lot of inborn hatred in a lot of American people and I think that they haven't gotten over some of the past misunderstandings about blacks in general to be able to allow them to lead the country.

Unidentified Man #4: You can probably tell from my accent that I'm from the South and I think that America would be willing to elect a black president. Times have changed and they've changed dramatically, and I see it better than most I think.

NORRIS: In Brooklyn, New York and St. Louis, Missouri, that was James Spain (ph), Malcolm Smith and Janella Young.

We now turn to two people who've spent a lot of time examining race in America: Diane McWhorter and Randall Kennedy. Kennedy is a law professor at Harvard and author of "Interracial Intimacies." Diane McWhorter is a Pulitzer Prize winner author of "Carry Me Home," a memoir about growing up in segregated Alabama.

McWhorter says she's not sure America is ready to elect a black president, even someone like Barack Obama, who's generating such strong enthusiasm in white America. But McWhorter has seen signs of change in Birmingham, a city that has evolved since she grew up there.

Ms. DIANE McWHORTER (Author, "Carry Me Home"): I remember when I was working on "Carry Me Home" and I was interviewing Klansmen, I interviewed the Exalted Cyclops of the Klavern in Birmingham that has been responsible for most of the violence in the 60s and he was kind of shy about talking to me because his boss was black and he didn't want his boss to find out that he had done bad things to African Americans.

It was kind of poignant, though, but I thought my God, if the Exalted Cyclops can not only, you know, work calmly and respectfully for an African American but could also be concerned about a person's feelings, then anything's possible.

NORRIS: Randall Kennedy, if people think about a black president and think about a president actually standing at the lectern, raising a family, raising black children in the White House, does that change their way of thinking?

Professor RANDALL KENNEDY (Harvard; Author, "Interracial Intimacies"): No, I don't - well, I don't think that's the way, or at least those sorts of symbols are the ones that people think about for this particular office. I mean, I think is this person going to defend me and my family and my country.

And again, I think for a black person, given all of the denigrating stereotypes that black people have had to face, there's a lot that's going to get in the way of people, you know, seeing a black person in the White House having, really, the fate of the world on that person's shoulders. It's going to be very difficult, but I think it's possible.

Not so long ago, the idea of, you know, black men bearing arms was itself a haunting specter - a frightening thing. Well, over the past 50 years, we've seen black men not only bearing arms, but giving orders and, you know, being in charge.

NORRIS: But Diane, I want to bring you into this, because if Barack Obama was born in Birmingham, Alabama as opposed to Honolulu, he might have been told as a child, when you walk down the street in downtown Birmingham, do not look a white person in the eye.

Ms. MCWHORTER: Oh, oh, sure, yeah. But, you know what? Here's what I think. I think that Colin Powell has pretty much made people comfortable with the idea of an African-American as a commander in chief. I think that Condi Rice has made people comfortable with the idea of an African-American in the inner sanctum of the White House.

I think where the rod is, is that at the time of the Civil Rights Movement - one of the reasons that the whites were so obstinate about giving into any quote, “demands” - as they called them, quote, “Negro demands” - was that, you know, the expression was if you give them an inch, they'll take a mile.

To me, the primitive fear of white people is that, if you have an African-American as the leader of the free world, that they're going to give away white privilege - you know, that we are going to have to give up something that we have taken for granted. So that, to me, would be the bar that an African-American candidate would have to overcome.

NORRIS: No matter what happens, it looks like were heading toward an interesting political season. It's been interesting talking to both of you. Come back and talk to us again soon.

Ms. MCWHORTER: Thank you so much.

Prof. KENNEDY: Thank you very much for having me.

NORRIS: Randall Kennedy is a professor of law at Harvard and author most recently of “Interracial Intimacies.” Diane McWhorter wrote the memoir, “Carry Me Home.”

Tomorrow, we take on another political question. Is America ready to elect a woman president?

Unidentified Woman: We want our presidents to look like the commander in chief, the physical, you know - so what is it that a woman does? Remember, the first George Bush was driving around in speedboats and eating pork rinds, and - I mean, they're always are playing - they're playing touch football or they're doing something. Now, when women start doing that, they look pretty silly.

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