RECENT POLLS INDICATE that black voters favor Sen Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) by a substantial margin over Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), so political pundits are all a-titter, asking how this can be. The assumption, apparently, is that black support should cleave to the black man.
But then, is Obama really black?
Of course he is. But that fact has done nothing to prevent the awkward dissection of Obama's cultural and racial affinities. Is he half black? Is he African American? African and American? And, if he's black, is he black enough? It's tempting to shrug off these questions -- most recently aired with grave concern Sunday on CBS' "60 Minutes" -- as outdated, but they're not. They are instructive and revealing.
The question of whether the rising Democratic star is black enough really translates to: Whose side is he on? Whose agenda will he favor? By definition, those agendas are distinct. Obama's family history -- his father was a black Kenyan, his mother a white Kansan, and he spent his childhood in places such as Hawaii and Indonesia -- makes him the personification of post-racial, melting-pot America; he straddles races and communities commonly described as opposites -- black or white, native or immigrant.
And, as he stands in that intersection fielding queries about his identity, he is really answering the question Americans are too afraid to ask one another: Can we trust each other yet?
Concrete issues around race and equality in America remain unresolved. One of the reasons Clinton has substantial black support is that her husband was adept at recognizing America's unhealed racial wounds, appointing a record number of African Americans to key positions during his presidency and earning the famous (if ridiculed) nickname from writer Toni Morrison as our "first black president."
Obama's challenge in luring blacks away from the former first lady will hinge not on his racial authenticity but on his ability to demonstrate that, despite his inexperience, he would be a better president. But since his political star began to shine as a state senator in Illinois, that authenticity has been under scrutiny, often by blacks.
In 2004, conservative commentator and former GOP presidential candidate Alan Keyes said Obama did not share the black experience because his heritage did not include slavery, the unifying experience for most African Americans. And last weekend, the Rev. Al Sharpton told 10,000 people gathered at Hampton University in Virginia that "just because you're our color doesn't make you our kind."
One person who is clear about Obama's identity is Obama himself. "If you look African American in this society, you're treated as an African American," he said on "60 Minutes."
As for blacks' support, he'll still have to earn it -- just like he'll have to earn anyone else's.