July 10th, 2008
01:27 PM ET

Walking the racial tightrope: Whose “side” is Obama really on?

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/POLITICS/07/10/jesse.jackson/art.jackson.wls.jpg caption="The Rev. Jesse Jackson has apologized to Sen. Barack Obama for his 'hurtful' remarks."]
Carmen Van Kerckhove
President, New Demographic, a consulting firm that addresses race and racism

Watching news coverage of Jesse Jackson’s remarks about Barack Obama “talking down to black people” reminded me of a conversation I had in 2000.

I was chatting over lunch with a couple of co-workers about celebrity gossip, and the conversation turned to Halle Berry's multiracial identity. My co-workers scoffed at the idea that a person could identify as biracial, declaring: "When it comes down to it, you know what side Halle's on."

At the time I wondered to myself: When it comes down to what? The inevitable great race war? Will we all have to pick a side once and for all and declare our racial allegiance?

Much has already been made about the supposed rift between “the old guard” represented by Jackson and “the new guard” represented by Obama. But to me, the Jackson incident is emblematic of a different issue. Namely, the anxiety that different racial or ethnic groups - especially blacks and whites - are feeling about whether Obama has their best interests at heart.

Judging from the Democratic primary results, Obama enjoys overwhelming support among African-American voters. But that doesn’t mean that black voters have no criticisms or doubts about his intentions. Many black journalists and bloggers, for example, expressed concern that Obama’s father’s day speech, though delivered to an all-black audience, was really aimed at assuring white voters that he could deliver “tough love” to people of his own community.

Similarly, all the hand-wringing about Obama’s patriotism (or lack thereof, according to some flag pin enthusiasts) has really been a coded way of asking: Is Obama going to look out for white folks too? The countless internet rumors and conspiracy theories - the “whitey” tape, Obama’s birth certificate, Obama’s secret Muslim faith - to me all indicate an underlying sense of unease among many whites. Few would admit to it openly, but I think that on some level, there are white Americans who fear that Obama will use his presidency to exact racial retribution for the historical oppression of African-Americans.

As a multiracial person myself, I know a thing or two about having my racial loyalty and authenticity called into question. But the racial tightrope Obama has to walk is on a whole other level.

No matter how hard he tries to distance himself from folks like Farrakhan or Wright - those who are associated in the public imagination with radical black politics - he will still be viewed with suspicion by some white voters. No matter how hard he emphasizes his involvement and contributions to the African-American community - some black voters will still believe he’s not committed enough to racial justice.

Editor's Note: Carmen Van Kerckhove is an Obama supporter. New Demographic is a consulting firm that addresses race and racism.

soundoff (26 Responses)
  1. Larry

    Obama never said that he was talking about black fathers. The spin on this is like the game where one person whispers something to the person next to them and by the end the whole thing sounds nothing like what it started as.

    July 10, 2008 at 11:29 pm |
  2. Rev. Donald B Williams

    Hey let us just vote for another white man. I think Bush is white unless he's lying about that too. I try to love everyone but, some people do not want that. They just want to rule the world. I really hate to say this but, if Sen. Clinton was the nominee she would be have the same problem like this also. White men do not respect anyone but themselves. White women think that they are equal to their white male if that was true why do you still make less than them. White men have control this world and hate fact anyone beside them might be in charge. check you history book.

    July 10, 2008 at 10:58 pm |
  3. Theresa from Minnesota

    I am a caucasian midwesterner who has not met very many Americans of African descent. But when I heard Senator Obama's speech about the men in the African American community not being good fathers. I wondered why pick a specific group of people at the time. Color or gender does not mean anything , it is a fact that in all different ethenic communites there are lousy fathers and mothers. So yes I think Senator Obama and his wife both tend to talk down to all the voters.

    July 10, 2008 at 10:55 pm |
  4. ron jones

    At the end of my day it is important to me to know if at anytime doing my day did I affend anyone because that is just the way that i am,I am selfemployed and my customers mean a lot to me so i practice what i preach trying hard not to put my foot in my mouth,because I know what i say and do not only hurts me but my family as well.
    so i like to say this to Mr.Jackson what say don't only hurt you sir
    but your family as well,so Mr.Jackson stop putting your foot in it.

    July 10, 2008 at 10:54 pm |
  5. Annie Kate

    Sides? I thought part of Obama's appeal was that there weren't sides – we were all just Americans. Dividing us into sides is symptomatic of old politics who pit us against each other. Can't we elevate the conversation and talk about issues that affect us all – the quality of education, rising prices, our continuing dependence on oil, universal health care, the wars we shouldn't be in, etc. ? Lets leave the politics of divisiveness behind and work together – we would all be better off to do so.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    July 10, 2008 at 9:44 pm |
  6. Kimberly

    As a person with a multi-cultural background, it is scary to hear the suggestion that Sen. Obama should have to choose a "side". The problem with this type of background is that neither group accepts you completely without suspicion. Obviously that is occurring here. The benefit is that you have the point of view of both cultures. I think that makes Sen. Obama unique to understanding a wide range of Americans and their experiences, unlike any other president before.

    He shouldn't be forced to choose when he seems to walk comfortably in both cultures. Maybe we can be brought together as a nation and a people once and for all. It can be the final chapter of our Manifest Destiny.

    July 10, 2008 at 9:41 pm |
  7. jim

    Obama is a candidate that will say or promise anything to win the election. As for Jesse Jackson, he has the right to express his opinion. In this case , I believe he was right. I would have a lot worse things to say about Obama and not apologize.

    July 10, 2008 at 9:31 pm |
  8. Cara


    In regards to Halle's mother.....her mother has openly stated that she has a "black" daughter and that the oscar win was in fact an important day for Black actresses! It was on Entertainment Tonight, or Access Hollywood the year she won. Sooooo even her mother knows how her daughter is viewed by society and the public. I'm sure Halle knows that she is the daugher of a White mother and a Black father.....but the way she is cast and the way she has been treated through out her life makes her speech very approapriate. Also, Is it not possible to be apart of both of those groups. You are treating Black and White as if they are mutually exclusive.....therefore reinforcing the racial beliefs that make her comments relevant. Your thought process is not devorced from the Race (-cial) catergorization racional that still present in the U.S. today.

    But onto, Jackson and Obama.......

    I understand Jackson's concerns and why he may be upset at Obama's speech – but, he shouldn't have been so careless as to say those things while mic-ed and on the air!!! I mean really! Is he going senile? He didn't say anything that hasn't already been said behind closed doors.....this includes the "castrating" comment. Some ppl are not happy at how Obama has to "walk the racial tightrope"......In a lot of ways he can't express how a demographi of the American people feel and how they are suffering becasue he himself belongs to that group. And that's frustrating to many ppl....including myself. I'm too young to remember Jesse's 1984 presidential bid and I vaguely remember his 1988 campaign. So I'm not apart of the Old guard, but I do feel that a lot of the Obama-mania is a bit strange. This is America, and I can tell that some of his supporters have NO IDEA how they themselves can help end racism completely. I don't think the future is promising.....not with this level of denile. Everyone is totally oblivious to the current state of race relations b/c we are like...."hey look, we are gonna elect a Black guy president....see racism doesn't exist, it can't if he become president – or – see he's our president we're not racist." We are F*CKING clueless!

    Racial "healing" wont feel good...it wil make us uncomfortable! And we can't get over the racism of the past and present if we keep ingnoring it's relevance today (socially, economically, etc.). We have to talk about it and bring things to the table......and I hope that WHEN OBAMA BECOMES PRESIDENT :O) – we finally will.

    July 10, 2008 at 5:54 pm |
  9. Joseph Brown

    Let's be real PEOPLE, everyone who is participating in this attack on Obama's racial loyalty or his loyalty to this country should check themselves. I've served my country for twenty-years in the military and still am not trusted by this country. the United States claim that racism is dead, yet it fears a black president. Why? Because in the midst of masks and lies it is not dead. Death brings about a new beginning, a new way of thinking, all I'm seeing is the same old rhetoric. A black man can't be President, because.... Fear. The word retribution for yesterday's errors in judgement means that those who are preaching this madness have not forgiven themselves for their ancestrial legacy. They have the nerve to still use the 'n-word' with pride and laughter in their voices, but cannot see the reflection in "the mirror of truth". the true 'N-word' is the one using it and the one parading lies and fear at a man who has proven his worth and character through his service to this country in another way. NOt one individual who has spread these lies have noted that several of our presidents were members of secrets societies that could ohave jeopardize this country, let's not talk about Bush's secrets.

    July 10, 2008 at 5:54 pm |
  10. Jamie from San Francisco

    Unfortunately, race will continually be an issue until, I think, there are more interracial marriages and children to establish commonality. Obama was very fortunate to grow up in a multi-ethnic, interracial environment like Hawaii where everyone is a representation of literally everyone. You truly do not know a person's full ethnicity by looking at them so most are curious to know what ethnicities they have in common vs. where they are different. Thus, the walls fall.

    July 10, 2008 at 5:32 pm |
  11. Pearl

    Mr. Obama made his Black-ness an issue or his lack of Black-ness
    Read his writings and listen to his book on tape..
    Mr. Obama himself state "We should blame White..E, not let white-E
    off the hook .."

    The fact that Mr. Jackson want's to remove Mr. Obama's manhood is no suprise, after all Mr. Jackson could be included in the list of a "bitter person clinging to his religion" according to Mr. Obama.

    Will the Secret Service be investigating the threat made against Mr .Obama, by Mr. Jackson

    Denver, Colorado

    July 10, 2008 at 5:31 pm |
  12. Altina Smith Flordia

    Obama is on the side of every american and wants the race card to no longer be part of the race. With so many things going wrong in this country and the world there is no room for it. I'm a black single woman with no kids and I fight hard every day to make it. How the saying go I got 99 problems and race is not one of them. I will be glad when we can look at each other as americans and not the black and white america.Look I was born here and everyone in my family and the community back in North carolina were born here so I'm not an Black american I AM A AMERICAN. I had trouble in my past wanted to be a thug and no white person made me make that decision in fact it was the people in my community that brought that life to me so, I do understand when Obama says we need to take responsability for what we do we as humans have a brain and most know right from wrong you make your bed then you have to lay in it.

    July 10, 2008 at 5:10 pm |
  13. Kent Fitzsimmons,Kewanee, IL

    Listen.............Obama is exactly what he seems.............terrific for all Americans...........the world for that matter. You racists are afraid he will come down on you and treat you how you have treated non-whites since forever. He won't. He is moving to the center on issues because he HAS to do so. He knows what is coming from the GOP and the swift boat people. He cannot sit still for a second or all will be lost. He is outsmarting people before they even have a chance to strike. This is coming to you from a blue collar white man...............Obama 08

    July 10, 2008 at 3:55 pm |
  14. Maritza

    Carmen ,

    Great commentary , yes I agree that Obama will still be viewed with suspicion by some, actually many, but the reality is the media left driven marketing strategy behind Obama is huge , has a great deal of dough to move the machine into overdrive, this movement that supports and molds Obama is almost foolproof, except you can't deceive too long , we've seen the cracks begin to emerge , his whole change" and change on many issues, FISA, NAFTA , gun controll , public financing, the list goes on, is only the double faced appearance that he has to show to gain the other sides votes, it is for the sole intent of gaining votes, the substance and reasoning behind his apparent switch on issues is phony, DUH, Once they make their White House goal , all hell will break loose, he will forget what he said , what he preached to the doubtful voters he managed to fool, we will then start to see goverment all over the place and in your face about everything. That's just a very tiny piece of a very large , very concerning future of our country.


    July 10, 2008 at 2:56 pm |
  15. Ben Saxon/Augusta

    Over the years I have held great respect for Rev. Jackson. Quite honestly, one has to respect the work he has done for civil rights. He has apologized for making such a bone headed statement concerning Barack Obama. Lets move on beyond Rev. Jackson's statement and focus on the task at hand because I can assure you, Senator Obama did not give it a second thought.

    July 10, 2008 at 2:54 pm |
  16. Melissa, Los Angeles

    Why should Obama have to choose a side? He is an American plain and simple. Outside of Bill Cosby, he is the first black politician to confront the black community to take ownership of their social problems which leads to their financial problems and the black on black crimes that lead to their imprisonment. Blaming the white man for the black community's problems are over and it scares Jackson because Obama is talking about people like him with his adulterous affair and illegitimate child. Perhaps he's the one that needs his *blank* cut off.

    July 10, 2008 at 2:43 pm |
  17. Jackie F.

    Why isn't anyone asking is McCain "white-enough" or which side is HE on? This question was never raised when Bush ran.

    Throughout history, every white candidate has been accepted as a possible President of ALL Americans, why can't it be applied to Obama? Why is it so unconceivable that a Black man can run for the whole country?

    July 10, 2008 at 2:16 pm |
  18. Mike in NYC

    "Few would admit to it openly, but I think that on some level, there are white Americans who fear that Obama will use his presidency to exact racial retribution for the historical oppression of African-Americans."

    This white person is saying it openly. Not "admitting" it, but STATING it.

    "...some black voters will still believe he’s not committed enough to racial justice."

    There is nothing more to be done in the name of "racial justice." We have affirmative action (discrimination against whites), diversity programs, and set-asides, not to mention the ever-present threat of discrimination lawsuits. Then there's the over $1 trillion price tag of the "War on Poverty," paid for overwhelmingly by whites. Add to that the glowing portrayals of "protected groups" in the media and the continual blame heaped upon whites for everyone else's problems. As for violent crime and who commits a disproportionate amount of it - well, we’ll save that for another discussion.

    The good thing about the racial acrimony of the Democrat primary is that now BO is acutely aware of the sentiments of many white Americans. Hopefully, he recognizes the need to tread very, very carefully.

    July 10, 2008 at 2:12 pm |
  19. Vanella

    Boo! That's what we said as children to those kids who seemed always afraid of something and we wanted to scare them. It seems like that's in the background of so much of the dialogue surrounding Barack Obama. Could it be that some people in America are afraid of others? Of course. To even question whose side of the race conversation Obama or anyone else is on, suggest that someone is drawing a line, and probably in the proverbial sand–a sign of war in most situations.

    Given this line of thinking, whose side of the racial tightrope is Bush on? Some people would say not only is he not black enough, he is too white. Race seems to be a cover for the fear that we saw played out in post-apartheid South Africa.

    These evasive blog topics and questions are intriguing, but, let's ask the pesky illusive question (s): are the whites losing momentum and will the blacks take over? How can you now entrust the nation to people you have enslaved, defiled, defamed, mistrusted, miseducated, feared, hated, disenfranchised, or otherwise maligned? Are we just scared as hell?

    July 10, 2008 at 2:08 pm |
  20. Larry

    I hope he doesn't become another sacrificial lamb as what happened when Dr. Bill Cosby spoke of the need for the black community to accept responsibility for self-inflicted problems.

    July 10, 2008 at 2:02 pm |
  21. Cindy

    Why is everyone trying to make this a thing where Obama has to choose a side? He is running for the president of us all not just the blacks! So he shouldn't have to pick a side and bow down to them alone. That is ludicrous to say that. He should not cater to anyone but try to walk that line to cater to us all.


    July 10, 2008 at 2:01 pm |
  22. Adaku

    Rev. Jackson is an old jealous dog. Mad that Obama has the prize he didn't obtain.

    July 10, 2008 at 1:47 pm |
  23. Adaku

    Obama is on the side of the American people. Each race in America have the seperate issues. But as the community of American the common issue of the American people out weigh the individual race issues.

    July 10, 2008 at 1:45 pm |
  24. Kristen- Philadelphia, PA

    OMG, I hope this whole election is not always reverted back to this. So what Obama is half black? There are always going to be people who are ignorant and can’t see past a person’s race, what can you do about it? Most people in this country don't feel like that. If they did then Obama would not have won the democratic primary and he would not be leading in the national polls.

    This election is not about Obama’s race. We are on the verge of going to war with Iran, gas prices are creeping towards 5 dollars, Iraq has admitted they want troops withdrawn and the biggest story today is Obama’s race. This is so ridiculous.

    It’s not the American people who might not be ready for a black president.
    I think it’s the media who don't know what to do with themselves. Yall need to be introduced to the 21st century.

    July 10, 2008 at 1:42 pm |
  25. R. Reynolds

    To be short and concise I am African American. I have donated several times to Obama’s campaign. As I talk with friends and family and others who support Obama we are quite happy with the campaign he is running and the language he is using. Jesse Jackson is a jealous has been. Instead of worrying about how Obama is running his campaign, maybe he should take Obama’s advice and be more concerned with being a father to his illegitimate child.

    July 10, 2008 at 1:42 pm |
  26. JC- Los Angeles

    Obama is a classic example of someone who wants it both ways, however, his track record forbids him from achieving his desired result.

    One can't associate with Rev. Wright for twenty years and then expect anyone to believe he views all people equally. The media asked the American people if they were ready for a black President, however, Obama and his associates made some ask if Obama was actually ready for the diversity of America.

    During Halle Berry's Oscar acceptance speech, as her white mother looked on, she said the Oscar was a victory for women of color. The use of race for convenience or to advance agendas is unacceptable. I would suggest that great leaders like Mandela, Gandhi or Mother Teresa were not viewed by the color of their skin but rather the character that they possessed.

    July 10, 2008 at 1:41 pm |