I never wanted to see Barack Obama elected president because of his race. In fact, I was hoping that, in 2008, we might actually make choices based not on questions of identity, but on our country's global isolation as well as the deliberately wrought domestic inequality of which Republicans are so proud.
Obama's opponents and critics have convinced me otherwise. The ugliness of their rhetoric and the seediness of their tactics have made it obvious just how racially wounded we remain and how healing that wound may be the single most important duty we have to each other. More than that, they have shown that one of the major obstacles to racial justice in this country comes not from right- wing demagogues, but from Democrats, liberals, and even African American leaders themselves.
Bob Kerrey was the first to enter the fray by gratuitously harping on Obama's middle name and reminding people that his father was a Muslim. Although Kerrey later apologized, the damage had been done. Then there was the shocker of Richard Cohen's January 15 Washington Post column, "Obama's Farrakhan Test." Although Cohen acknowledged that Obama harbors neither disdain for the Jews nor sympathy with Louis Farrakhan, he went on to smear Obama by association in the single most despicable op-ed of this century so far.
Apparently, we do not need Rush Limbaugh to make wisecracks about Obama's honesty in discussing his youthful flirtation with drugs; we have BET founder Bob Johnson flinging the muck, with Hillary Clinton standing there beside him. Charles Rangel was scarcely better when he condemned Obama's response to Clinton's remarks about Lyndon Johnson's responsibility for the Civil Rights Act as "absolutely stupid." For the first time in their lives, America's elder black statesmen have to deal with a young, dynamic, and popular leader--and their fear of doing so is palpable.
Not long ago, I thought that Hillary Clinton's nomination was inevitable and that she might be the best candidate against the Republicans and could even become a half-decent president. But political campaigns are for nothing if they are not for learning, and this one has taught me much. We have not moved beyond race. Obama has met the tactics deployed against him with compelling dignity. Yes, he lacks foreign policy experience. And I, for one, cannot figure out exactly what his calls for post-partisanship mean. But, since our pundits seem so determined to put African Americans to tests, let us not give Barack Obama the "Farrakhan test." Let's give him the leadership test. Our country needs him to put to rest its racial demons.
Alan Wolfe is a professor at Boston College.
Part one: Randall Kennedy
Part two: Judith Shulevitz
Part three: Erica Jong