Chief National Correspondent
The politics of race is a dicey topic, and one not to be treated lightly. So when we decided to spend some time tonight exploring race and the presidential campaign, I decided to check in with an old friend: Professor Merle Black of Atlanta’s Emory University.
I have been touching base with Merle for the past two decades; he and his twin brother Earl are among the best in the nation at analyzing political trends, and have for the past quarter century watched race play a role in the region they know best, the South. Their book, “Divided America,” is a good read for anyone who wants to take a closer look at the factors that drive American politics today.
The brothers Black don’t play the hyperbole game – they let history and data do the talking. So this got my attention: “The reappearance of Pastor Wright here is a nightmare for the Obama campaign.”
Merle’s point was that be believes across the Midwest and South, in the smaller communities that tend to settle close races for president, voters will have questions about Obama’s 20-year relationship with a church whose pastor has said some pretty controversial things. It is in part a question or race; if he wins the nomination Obama will be asking the country to make history.
“The contradiction is that Obama is someone who presents himself as someone who has transcended race, and this is a church where race is clearly central to its theology,” Merle Black told us.
And, Merle says, it is also about the questions every candidate for president faces.
“It goes to the character and judgment of Barack Obama,” he said. “Across the South and the heartland of the United States, you know many are, especially rural small town Americans … they really couldn’t understand why someone would be a member of that church for 20 years.”
The Obama campaign is correct in saying voters want to hear more about the candidates’ views on the economy and health care and the war in Iraq.
But all candidates for president, especially those who are newcomers to the national stage, also face the considerable challenge of introducing themselves to the American people. And my conversations with Merle and others today leave me convinced Senator Obama, for all his strengths as a candidate, still has his work cut out for him when it comes to introducing and defining himself – before his critics and opponents do it for him.
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