LOS ANGELES – Did he do it?
That was the question my friend, herself an old friend of Barack and Michelle Obama, asked me in the wake of the Illinois Senator’s powerful and eloquent speech on race this this week.
Did he put the issue of race to rest?
The short answer is no.
The long version is more complicated, like the race question itself, like Barack Obama the candidate. Complicated and sometimes contradictory.
It’s clear, reading the coverage of the speech, that if you were an Obama supporter going in, you were even more convinced coming out.
I know many Obama supporters who were deeply troubled by what they’ve been reading and seeing of the rants of his former pastor. It’s ugly stuff.
The pictures of the pastor and Minister Farrakhan, making nice with people who aren’t, are already showing up, and there will be more. It’s the kind of stuff that you know is out there, but you’d like to think of as being at the fringe, outside the realm of where decent people travel, confined to the margins of the blogosphere instead of the pulpit of a large and powerful Chicago church.
Obama did what he had to do to reassure those folks, the people who started as his supporters and wanted to be reassured that supporting Obama didn’t mean supporting the divisive message of his former pastor.
Don’t ask them if they’d feel the same way about a white candidate who compared his grandmother to a member of the Klu Klux Klan. That’s not how they see it.
What they heard Obama say is that he doesn’t buy the divisive message, that his campaign is not about mining the racial divide but about transcending it, that he isn’t choosing black against white in a zero sum fight for the crumbs of a shrinking pie.
Obama supporters describe themselves as being moved and touched, and their candidate as being brave and nuanced and forthright. They breathed a sigh of relief this week, convinced, more than ever, that America needs Barack Obama to be President.
Talk to Obama critics and you wonder, for a minute, if they heard the same speech. It reminds me of nothing so much as the days of the O.J. Simpson trial, when we – black and white parents, who were sending our children to school together - discovered we simply couldn’t talk about the case, so different was what we saw and heard as to leave all of us shaking our heads in wonder and disbelief that our friends, with whom we agreed on so many things, could see this thing so differently.
What the critics are saying, sometimes out loud but also in quiet whispers, is that they don’t understand how a man who gives speeches about moving past the racial divide would choose a racist minister to be a member of his family, about why, with all the churches in Chicago, Obama not only picked this one but remained true to it, about how he could not have known what others knew, could not have heard what others did.
The critics will tell you that blaming white America for spreading AIDS to blacks is not the same as an elderly white woman admitting that she is afraid of black men, and that there is a difference between standing by the grandmother who raised you and standing by a religious leader who preaches hate.
Even Jesse Jackson admitted a few years ago to the sad truth that he was afraid of young black men. Most young black men don’t commit crime, but a disproportionate amount of crime is committed by the minority who do.
Being afraid of black men is, unfortunately, rational even if it is also racist, in the sense that it involves judging people negatively for no reason other than the color of their skin. Blaming white America for spreading AIDS to the black community is not only racist, but hateful, precisely because it lacks any rational basis.
It’s because he doesn’t want to lose the black vote, one longtime Democrat told me this morning, explaining that Obama’s speech had convinced her to vote for McCain if Hillary Clinton is not the nominee.
Has the candidate who only months ago was being judged by some as “not black enough” become “too black” even for some longtime Democrats, who worry about a double standard that they ascribe to Obama’s unwillingness to risk offending the black voters who have become his most loyal supporters?
Would they abandon him if he denounced his preacher, I wonder out loud. And if they would, is that because such hate is more widespread than we white Americans would like to believe, because the racial divide really is much bigger, and much angrier, than we would ever admit? And is that, ultimately, an argument against Obama, or for him?
I’ve been accused of being a racist more times during this campaign than in all the rest of my political life, combined. I wrote a book supporting Hillary Clinton for President long before Obama got in the race, and count the Clintons as longtime friends.
I have tried, not always perfectly I am sure, to be fair and respectful towards Barack Obama. I have tried to keep my focus on issues and qualifications. You can say I’m wrong – I’m certainly used to saying that - but racist?
I believe that Barack Obama, in running for President, really is trying to transcend the racial divide. He may or may not succeed.
But what his candidacy, particuarly this week, has revealed, yet again, is just how wide and powerful that divide still is, even if this time it is defined more by the candidate that you support than by the color of your skin.
Is the race discussion over? Clearly not. It has just begun.
The more honest everyone can be, the more we can resist calling each other names instead of engaging each other on the merits, the better it will go.
Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.
Estrich's books include the just published "Soulless," "The Case for Hillary Clinton," "How to Get Into Law School," "Sex & Power," "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women."
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the "Blue Streak" column for FOXNews.com.