"America doesn't have an easy time dealing with race," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the Washington Times in an interview last week. Rice added that members of her family have "endured terrible humiliations."
As the first African-American woman to serve as secretary of state, Rice is living proof of a new America where race is not an obstacle to garnering a leadership role in the most rarefied circles of government. Yet her remarks come as Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama is dealing with a controversy concerning his pastor of 20 years, Jeremiah Wright, that is likely to haunt Obama throughout his campaign. The controversy suggests that while American voters may be ready, in principle, for a black president, they may not go for a black candidate.
Many readers plainly told me in e-mails: They don't want a president who went to a church for 20 years even though its pastor bashed America and at times denigrated white folk. They believe that the same standards that would hold for any white politician -- whom they would expect to walk out of a church service if the minister bad-mouthed black people -- should apply to a black politician.
They clearly do not want a president who is anti-American. Former GOP Rep. John Kasich summed up the attitude last week on Fox News, when he noted that after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he and his daughter walked out of a church service after an assistant pastor told the congregation that America "sort of invited" the attacks. "So, Obama says he doesn't want to vet his pastor. Why not?" said Kasich. "I mean, I vet my pastor all the time."
And: "Why not just denounce this guy and say this was crackpot stuff?" Two readers provided reasons why Obama did not cut Wright loose. A 62-year-old white man named Joe recalled his youth in Tennessee: "Even if you were not bigoted yourself, so many white people expressed contempt for blacks that you either tolerated it without agreeing with it, or faced a very complicated social life, 90 percent in isolation."
Now, Joe observed, racial prejudice has become such a stigma in white America "that white Americans have the luxury not to tolerate it. It's like smoking -- you can be intolerant of it today, couldn't be in 1960."
A black Californian in his 70s recalled his youth in an e-mail to me. When Calvin visited the South, he could only use colored bathrooms; when he went to a movie theater on a visit to Washington, he was refused admission and told it was "nothing personal." When he drove across the country before he served in the Army, he was regularly refused service. While some Americans see racial discrimination as history, for this reader, it is personal history.
Stack up Calvin's many experiences against the whine from white voters that they couldn't get away with saying what Pastor Wright said. Life is not fair: One group has been treated horribly. Members of another group cannot say every stupid thought that passes through his or her brains. Whose life is better?
All that said, I won't be crying a river for Barack Obama, who is getting a taste of what it is like to be clobbered because of a sound bite. Since the Wright story erupted, Obama argued on the TV show "The View" that the "endless loop" of visual "snippets" from Wright's sermons do not tell the story of who Wright is.
Of course, they don't. But when radio talk-show host Don Imus dissed young black female athletes, Obama announced, "There is nobody on my staff who would still be working for me if they made any comment like that about anybody of any ethnic group."
If there is a Wright backlash, it will exist, in part, as a rejection of the cycle of gaffe-and-pile-on that serves as a proxy for political debate in Washington. Is that small-minded? Sure. Live by the sound bite, die by the sound bite.