CHICAGO — I was curious what language Barack Obama would speak after last week’s “Presumptive Nominee World Tour” that included stops in Germany and the Middle East.
But when he showed up at a last-minute session of the “Unity: Journalists of Color” convention, B.O. looked predictably tired and jetlagged. He could have been sleepwalking.
Maybe Obama took the journalists of color for granted. After all, most of the 7,000 conventioneers were absent themselves, unable to change their plans after Obama delayed his appearance date from Thursday to Sunday; I’d be surprised if more than 10 percent of convention goers were present. Then there was the embarrassing fact that Unity leadership had to remind those present to refrain from anything more than polite applause so as not to indicate the journalists’ knee-jerk bias for a candidate of color.
Regular readers of my column know I retain a healthy skepticism when it comes to B.O. But here’s a surprise after hearing Obama in front of all those journalists of color: The candidate of color is only a mild advocate of color.
Obama’s Immigration Stand
The new twist here was Obama’s insertion of class into the immigration issue, though he brought it up normally enough. “The problem is when you have a legal immigration system parallel with an illegal system,” Obama said. “I have said I’m strongly in favor of a comprehensive immigration approach.”
Obama believes in a crackdown on employers who hire undocumented workers, serious border security, pathways to citizenship that levy fines and an English requirement for immigrants.
He did mention the long waits for family unification that could take ten years or more. It’s “pushing people into the illegal system,” said Obama, who implied he might change that but didn’t say how.
Instead, he indicated there may be new restrictions on countries that have hundreds of immigrants (perhaps from Asia). “We’re probably underrepresenting immigrants from certain parts of the world,” Obama said. “It’s harder for Haitians than those from other parts despite similarities in need. That’s something we should examine.”
There he goes courting that Haitian vote.
The class twist came as he brought up the cost of immigration. “It’s harder for the ambitious hardworking, well-qualified poor folks coming into this country,” Obama said. “And that makes it a lot easier for….”
Here he paused to think up an example. And then he came up with the unlikely illegal immigrant. “Mick Jagger,” said Obama.
Frankly, I think the rich would prefer the tax laws in the Cayman Islands. But the subtext here was that in immigration, your class not your race, may endear you more in an Obama administration.
More Race Avoidance
A tougher question came when asked if he was overdoing his proclamation of Christianity and actually doing more harm to the Muslim community.
“This is a classic example of a no-win situation, right?” Obama said to laughter in the audience from reporters/supporters. “So I try to correct something false, and then people say why are you correcting this thing in a way that isn’t sufficiently….” His thoughts trailed off, but he did say he has been at the forefront of Muslim American and Arab American rights, an idea that brought loud clapping from reporters/supporters.
Frankly, he should have just answered it without appearing defensive. Being president is a no-win situation.
Then came a tough follow-up question: “Do you think you could have come this far if you weren’t Muslim?”
Obama used it to show what’s become his new way to avoid race issues. He says American people are more tolerant than most people think, and that they’re interested in someone who can get them a job, help send their kids to college. Essentially, it boils down this new class equation: He has their support, if he can make their lives better. “If on the other hand, I can’t help them do that, then it doesn’t matter what my religion is or what my skin color is.”
There was dead silence. Did he just make race totally irrelevant?
Asians Bring Up Affirmative Action
For good measure, in the role of the Asian American representative, asked a question about McCain backing Ward Connerly’s anti-affirmative action initiative in Arizona, and whether a black man’s rise to be a presidential nominee showed that affirmative action was passé.
Obama said he was a strong supporter of affirmative action when properly structured “so it’s not a quota.” He also chastised McCain for backing the divisive wedge politics of Connerly.
But B.O.’s affirmative action stand is hardly radical. He believes we need to craft it “so some of our children aren’t getting more favored treatment than a poor white who has struggled more.”
He clarified: “I think a university or college should take into account race but also class.”
There was no applause. Or reaction. It may just take a while to sink in that race seems less relevant than ever in the first person of color’s quest for the White House.
For more about Unity, comments from CNN President Jonathan Klein and The New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., studies on Asian American underrepresentation and the dirty jokes of Nightline’s Martin Bashir, check out the blog at amok.asianweek.com.