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.
If blackness is the coin of the Democratic political realm these days, Hillary is richer by virtue of her husband's bona fides. Obama lags behind Hillary even among black women voters, which Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore's 2000 campaign, has explained as follows:
"The way it works is that African-Americans tend to support those they know, and Hillary Clinton, like Bill Clinton, are known commodities."
So exactly how does a black man take black women voters from the wife of the first black president? There was only one answer. The Goddess. She Who Needs No Last Name.
No one has bridged the racial divide as successfully as Oprah and few people have more street cred among women. Oprah's isn't just a race card. She's a deck of race and gender. She's a casino of transcendence. The pot o' gold 'neath Jesse Jackson's rainbow.
Together the double-O team hit Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina last weekend, attracting crowds totaling an estimated 66,500. Irony, never far from the political pulpit, politely averted her gaze from the donkey in the stadium:
The black woman, whose success is largely owing to her popularity among white women, stumped for the black man in hopes of drawing black women away from the white woman.
This race business is complicated.
No one, including Obama, doubts that his huge crowds were thanks more to Oprah's star power than to his, as he charmingly acknowledged. He got a rousing ovation when he asked an audience if they'd like to see Oprah as vice president, which was a question perhaps more prescient than merely affectionate.
The contest between a black man and white woman for the Democratic nomination is both historic and fascinating to watch. But while Obama and Clinton are the candidates, the race these days seems to be between Bill and Oprah.