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Thursday, January 3, 2008.


By Keith Boykin


Today,Iowans go to their caucuses and the American presidential race is finally heating up. The latest opinion polls show a surprise in Iowa -  traditionally the first US state to kick off the primaries.


For the first time ever, Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee are leading the polls in their respective parties. Huckabee may not have the money or organization to translate an Iowa victory into a nomination win, but Obama does.


That's why this is particularly good news for Barack Obama. Just over a month ago, the media were ready to declare Obama's campaign dead on arrival. But after Hillary Clinton stumbled in a debate in Philadelphia and Obama gave a stirring speech at the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in Iowa, the Illinois senator has been getting a second look. Now with the Iowa polls on his side and the wind at his back, he's getting a second chance to make a first impression. Call it Barack 2.0.


It was just over a year ago when New York Times columnist Frank Rich seemed to declare the prospect of an Obama presidential campaign to be a pipe dream. "To understand the hysteria about a Democratic senator who has not yet served two years and is mainly known for a single speech at the 2004 convention, you have to appreciate just how desperate the Democrats are for a panacea for all their ills," Rich wrote in October 2006.


Later in the article, titled "Obama Is Not a Miracle Elixir," Rich went on to praise Obama for the Democrats as "one of their best hopes."


Recently, Frank Rich's other shoe dropped when he all but endorsed Obama's presidential bid and dismissed the questions about Barack's electability. "Were Mr. Obama to best Mrs. Clinton for the Democratic nomination, he may prove harder for the Republicans to rally against and defeat than the all-powerful, battle-tested Clinton machine," he wrote.


Certainly, an Obama candidacy removes America from the possibility of a Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton scenario and removes a lot of the baggage that Hillary Clinton brings to a general election campaign. But I think Rich is downright naive in his analysis about race.


"Part of the Republicans’ difficulty in countering Mr. Obama, should they have to, is their own cynical racial politics. For the most part, race has been the dog that hasn’t barked in this campaign despite the (largely) white press’s endless fretting about whether the Illinois senator is too white for black voters and too black for white voters," Rich writes.


Obama, a student of history, surely understands the historical implications of race in his campaign. But it is the "audacity of hope," as he calls it, that encouraged him to run in the first place.


No one thought he was ever going to be elected senator when he announced his candidacy, and the naysayers were wrong. He's hoping now that the naysayers are wrong again. And maybe that's the reason why the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has endorsed Obama, has criticized the senator and the other Democrats recently for failing to tackle issues that concern black America.


Obama knows that if he runs a Jesse Jackson- or Al Sharpton-style campaign, the white voters won't support him. But he also needs to make a direct appeal to black voters, as he has been doing lately in South Carolina and Harlem, or African Americans may see him as too "whitewashed."


Frank Rich makes a good point in his critique of the media's obsession with race, but he wanders off the reservation with his next observation. "Most Americans aren’t racist, most Republicans included," says Rich.


I'm sorry, but I don't buy it. Yes, most Americans are not dyed-in-the-wool KKK-member racists. That's no longer fashinonable in America, not even in the South. But surely a colunist as smart as Frank Rich understands that racism has not disappeared; it's just moved underground.


You gotta love white liberals, but I don't think they get it. Last time I checked the polls on this issue, I recall that white voters were more likely than black voters to think that America was ready to elect a black president.


That's not because black people are cynical; we're realistic. We hear all the platitudes about equality from white people all the time, and those idealistic words rarely change the day-to-day existence for most African Americans. I love America, but this is still a racist country.


And, I'm sorry to disappoint Rich, but I believe all Americans are racist. Again, not the evil KKK-type of overt racists, but the softer, gentler racists who practice their prejudice with subtlety and unconsciousness. The dictionary defines a racist as "a person with a prejudiced belief that one race is superior to others." America is built on that very assumption, and has been since its inception.


Those thoughts didn't magically disappear when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964.


Republicans know this, and Democrats in the South surely must understand this too. If anyone seriously thinks that the Republican Party won't play the race card in the presidential election if Obama is the nominee, then I'd love to meet you in Vegas for a high-stakes round of poker.


The GOP message won't be overt. They won't have to do that. White voters can clearly see that Barack Obama is black. And although they may tell the pollsters that they would consider voting for a black president, history suggests that many of them will be lying. Just ask David Dinkins and Doug Wilder, who narrowly won their elections in New York and Virginia after polls showed them with strong leads.


That doesn't mean people -- including black people -- shouldn't vote for Barack Obama if they like him as a candidate. But it does mean that white America, especially white liberal America, needs to wake up and smell the coffee about race in America. If Obama should win the nomination, it's going to take more than wishful thinking on race for him to win the presidency.


The piece was first published on Friday, December 21, 2007.


Keith Boykin is a writer, broadcaster, journalist and political commentator. He blogs at Keithboykin.com


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