Obama dogged by repeated question whether he’s black enough

Sen. Barack Obama was scheduled to address the National Association of Black Journalists, but he was late. A hum of conversation hung over the standing-room-only crowd waiting for him in a ballroom at Bally's Las Vegas.

Then, maybe 15 minutes after the appointed starting time, the would-be president was introduced. "I want to apologize for being a little bit late," he said. "But you guys keep on asking whether I'm black enough" - and here he had to pause for the roar of laughter that ensued - "so I figured I'd stroll in about 10 minutes after deadline."

As the laughter subsided, he murmured, "I've been holding that in my pocket for a while."

I'll bet he has. And with any luck, that "CP-time" (colored people-time) joke will be the last word on the "issue" of his blackness.

A computer search finds 464 instances where Obama's name appears in print in conjunction with the phrase "black enough." The first was in the Chicago Sun-Times in 2003 when he was preparing to run for the Senate. Writer Laura Washington recalled his loss in an earlier House race to a South Side incumbent. "Whispers abounded," she wrote, "that Obama was 'not black enough.' "

Washington went on to recall how her uncle, a retired black railroad worker, had seen Obama wearing "a thousand-dollar coat" while visiting a public housing project. Her uncle, she said, "dismissed him as an 'elitist.' "

And isn't that telling? A black rapper who visited that same housing project wearing a thousand dollar coat would be celebrated and emulated. A black politician who does so is an elitist.

Man, I wouldn't walk in Barack Obama's shoes for a million dollars. Oh, he seems like a swell guy. But it must get real old real fast being America's tabula rasa, its blank slate upon which it projects unresolved racial aspirations and fears. If it has been painful watching some conservative white Americans project upon him the latter (Is he too black? Is he Muslim? What about that weird name?), it has been just as painful if not more so watching many black Americans grappling with the former.

Here's Obama's problem: By the simple fact of his existence, he changes the conversation. MSNBC's Tucker Carlson aired a segment pondering what it means when Obama is asked whether he's black enough. He and two other white pundits pontificated, without apparent irony, upon the meaning of blackness. No blacks joined them. If there's been a plainer, though less intentional, argument for greater media diversity in recent days, I haven't seen it.

Obama is upwardly mobile, Harvard educated and beloved by many liberal whites. So he is regarded by some with suspicion. However, as he noted in Las Vegas, he is certainly physically definable as a black man and his legislative history shows an affinity for issues of importance to black people.

So the question of whether he's "black enough" reveals more about the people asking than the man being asked. Liberal and black and conservative and white, we have projected our own realities upon this guy, have written like mad upon the blank slate.

And in the process, we've failed to hear what he's been saying for years now:

The slate isn't blank and it never was.

Leonard Pitts Jr., a columnist for the Miami Herald, can be reached at lpitts@miamiherald.com.