WASHINGTON -- The heavy seas that the Obama campaign is now encountering should trouble us all. It is utterly appropriate for a one-term United States senator to be questioned about the extent of his experience or about his grasp of policy. It is, however, profoundly troubling that all these years after the triumph of the civil rights movement and after the integration of millions of blacks into American life, Sen. Barack Obama's race has become an issue. Perhaps I am naive, but I thought race was passe in America.
I thought racial differences in America were now about where ethnic differences were four decades ago. In the 1950s and 1960s, when I was growing up in ethnically and religiously diverse neighborhoods in the Chicago area, I saw ethnic and religious rivalries mellow to the point that each of us admired and felt enriched by the distinctive ethnic traditions of our friends, whether they be Italians or Poles or Germans or white Anglo-Saxon Protestants or whatever. All these groups spiced up the melting pot and made America what it is, a diverse nation of peoples from all lands, adhering to timeless principles laid down by the Founding Fathers long ago.
This same agglutination of white Americans and black Americans has been going on for at least three decades. It explains the popularity of such figures as Oprah Winfrey and Colin Powell and of sports dominated by great black athletes. Of course, it also explains the growing popularity of Obama through the early primaries and caucuses -- often in states where blacks compose a small minority, but where racial bigotry has evanesced.
Unfortunately, the politicians who would lead America from the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives have not been able to keep the false issue of race out of this presidential nominating process. In fact, I do not think they even tried to keep it out of the campaign. If they had spoken as stentorianly against making race an issue as they have spoken on other matters -- usually matters of fleeting importance -- Obama would not have become the racially divisive candidate that he is today. As things stand right now, I see him as the Al Smith of our time, the candidate from a minority background (in Smith's case, Irish Catholic) whose defeat will make it impossible for a candidate of his background to run successfully for the presidency for years to come.