WASHINGTON -- In the politics of race, black and white isn't so black-and-white anymore.
Rather than a matter of skin tone and pigmentation, race has become a question of blackness and whiteness -- a calculation of attitude, experience and cultural identity.
Our first hint that the race card had found a new game was when Nobel Prize-winning writer Toni Morrison called Bill Clinton "our first black president."
"Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas."
At the risk of contradicting Morrison, but for the sax, those are white-trash tropes. Toss in a banjo and you've got Deliverance.
Nevertheless, Morrison's title stuck and Clinton subsequently was hailed as "First Black President" at the 2001 Congressional Black Caucus Annual Awards Dinner.
But if Clinton was the first black president, what would Barack Obama be?
As a matter of DNA, Obama is obviously blacker than Clinton, despite being a very-distant cousin of Dick Cheney. But, born to a white mother and a Kenyan father -- raised in Hawaii and Indonesia -- Obama doesn't quite fit the profile of black-in-America.
It didn't help when civil rights leader and former United Nations ambassador Andrew Young said recently that Bill Clinton is "every bit as black as Barack."
Joking, he added, "He's probably gone with more black women than Barack."
Talking about race in stereotypical terms is of course risky. Then again, we all know that stereotypes exist because they're often true enough. Besides, where would political pandering be without them?
Thus, when Hillary Clinton goes to the 'hood, she tries to slip a little soul in her step. She pulled off a not-bad ghetto head-bobble at a black college in Columbia, S.C., early in the campaign. And nightmares still thrive on her channeling of James Cleveland and his freedom hymn in Selma, Ala., during the 42nd anniversary commemoration of Bloody Sunday:
"I don't feel no ways tahred ... I come too far from where I started from ... " she blared with an accent that was two parts bubba, one part soul sistah -- Nasal T. Lardbottom starring in "The Color Purple."
Three blocks away, even Obama felt compelled to loosen his vowels as he invoked civil rights leaders. In Southern states where equal numbers of blacks and whites often turn out for Obama, the former high school basketball player sometimes inserts an extra spring his step. It's subtle, but the "Yo, bro" is there.