Do we want to know which side Obama would have been on, outside that pizza parlor in Brooklyn? He likely would’ve tried to talk Sal and Mookie out of a rash act, though there wouldn’t have been time for that. Michelle doesn’t mention the side he favored on their first date. It’s too loaded a question for a transcendental, post-racial candidate. The feelings unearthed in Lee’s movie, while submerged, are still unhealed twenty years later. The promise of Obama’s campaign, and the notion embodied in their relationship, is to heal those wounds without further pain. But can that really be possible? After 400 years, some doubt is unavoidable.
No one to the left of David Duke would ever admit to being racist. And nearly 70 percent of whites, according to a CBS/New York Times poll from last month, say that America is ready to elect a black president—in theory. But it seems that a lot of white Americans are wondering about what promised land, exactly, the Obamas are going to lead us to. Even if Obama is the kind of black politician that middle-American white voters can get behind, the secret fear is that he could be a black Trojan horse with all sorts of passengers like Wright—or onetime compadres Bernie Mac and Ludacris—peeping out from under the canvas. He could be ... Michelle. Or at least what Michelle represents: a smart, angry black person in the White House.
This distrust manifests itself in all sorts of rumors about Obama. Outside a Subway in Atlanta, a bunch of white kids parse Obama’s lineage, at least the fanciful one that they learned about on the Internet. “It’s such a crock that Obama keeps saying he’s going to be the first black president,” says one of them. “He’s half-white, first of all, plus 44 percent Muslim, and only 6 percent African.” (The logic here is that Obama’s paternal line stems from an Arabic tribe.) This doesn’t make Obama any more appealing, though: Apparently, Obama’s uncle is also leader in Kenya of a group that’s “not Al Qaeda, but the other one.” These guys protest that their concerns about him are not about race at all, as one kid, a chin-stroking type studying diesel mechanics, takes over the conversation. “I think we’ve changed our attitudes toward African-Americans in my generation, in the South,” he says, in a measured, calm tone. “But the fact is that if I’m going to elect someone to the highest office in the land, his past needs to be clear.” He looks me straight in the eye, white person to white person. “For us, it’s an issue of trust.”
As I began to finish the reporting for this article, I mentioned to an Obama aide that I was interested in the different ways that Obama presents himself to black and white audiences. The aide hit the roof over this comment, which he claimed was racially divisive, and soon I received a call from Obama’s “African-American outreach coordinator,” who apparently clarifies race issues for reporters when they are perceived to have strayed. “I appreciate what you’re saying,” said Corey Ealons, “but I think it’s dangerous, quite frankly.” He thought for a moment. “The spirit of this campaign is about bringing people together and focusing on the things that are similar about us as opposed to the things that make it different,” he said. “Barack is one of the best political communicators in our history. If you’re somehow saying that he can’t be the same person with all people, that’s certainly not the case.” He paused. “Barack Obama is Barack Obama,” he said.
Obama is the candidate that the Democrats said they wanted—someone who could break down barriers and change the game. At this point in the election process, it’s hard to see the way we move past the race issue, out of the realm of coded discussions and weekly misunderstandings. But there’s a ton of people who aren’t feeling the same hopelessness—they didn’t think that they’d ever see a black presidential candidate in their lifetime, and are pretty thrilled about it. In some of my conversations with African-American voters, excitement is mitigated by a deep apprehension—will Obama really get a chance to lead the country, or will someone shoot him? When you want something so badly, you’re terrified it’s going to be taken away.
The black volunteers outside an Obama event at a middle school in Charlotte, North Carolina, talk about unity and hope, “the urgency of now” and “the spirit of change,” but after five minutes you can’t stop them from talking about the real reason they’re here. Obama is the Messiah, the one to unify all of us. Vanessa Lockhart, a lively woman in a Kente-cloth T-shirt embroidered with the message GOD SENT HIM FROM ABOVE, FILLED HIM WITH PATIENCE AND LOVE, AND CALLED HIM BARACK OBAMA, races through the crowd. “I met Michelle once, and her spirit was so beautiful,” she says. “I gave her a big hug and told her that Barack has an anointing on him by God. Michelle held my shoulders and said, very seriously, ‘Y’all take care of him, now. Y’all please take care of him.’ ”
Off to the side, David Claytor, a barrel-chested man in a red polo shirt, cleans his thin-rimmed black glasses. “This campaign has meant so much,” he says. “One day, I was going door-to-door handing out my Obama stuff, and I came across a house that was flying a Confederate flag. I thought to myself, ‘I don’t know if I want to go to this house. I’ve never been to a house with a flag like that before.’ When I knocked on the door, I saw that the person there was living in abject poverty. Now, I can’t believe that the conservative leaders are gravitating toward a flag, when their people are hurting.”
Claytor puts on his glasses.
“The fact is that it is time for racism to die,” he says. “But racism is a goat. People are lambs, and when a lamb is facing demise, it will lay down and accept it. A goat keeps on squealing, bucking, and crying at the slaughter.”