LAS VEGAS – Barack Obama was 20 minutes late for a speech to thousands of black journalists gathered in Las Vegas.
So when the Illinois senator and presidential contender finally made it to the ballroom stage Friday, he alluded to “CP time,” or colored people’s time – a long-running, self-deprecating joke among blacks about stereotypical assumptions that they are never on time.
“I want to apologize for being a little bit late,” Obama said. “But you guys keep on asking whether I’m black enough. I figured I’d stroll in.”
Everyone laughed, but the comment went to the heart of an ongoing issue for Obama, and he ultimately questioned why his race had become such an issue with the media and subsequently black voters.
“This is a puzzling question,” Obama said. “The fact that it’s been perpetrated through the press is interesting. We should ask ourselves why that is.
“It’s not because of my physical experience. It’s not because of my track record because there’s nobody in this race who has a stronger track record on the issues that directly pertain to the African-American community.”
Obama, a leading Democratic contender for president, is running a broad-based campaign designed to appeal to voters of all backgrounds.
National polls show he trails New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton among black voters, which some analysts say is surprising because Obama is the strongest black candidate to contend for president since the historic campaigns of civil-rights leader Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988.
And yet, there have been rumblings that black voters may question whether Obama has shared their experiences, having grown up in Hawaii and attended top colleges.
The question represents an important political point – black voters represent the Democratic Party’s most reliable base, and Obama is depending on them to help him win critical primaries in the South, including the early testing ground of South Carolina.
What’s more, Obama says his candidacy could help the Democratic Party, if he’s the nominee, because it could put southern states with large black populations, such as Mississippi, in play.
“We can scramble the political map,” Obama said.
Obama argued that his background proves his authenticity. He was a neighborhood organizer in Chicago and as a legislator, he said, he tackled numerous issues of concern to minorities, including racial profiling and the death penalty.
“It’s not that I can’t give a pretty good speech,” Obama said to frequent applause. “From what I heard, I can preach once and awhile.”
Obama theorized that some blacks didn’t appreciate the broad campaign, while others were fearful that his candidacy would not be successful. Various polls show that a high percentage of black voters don’t think America would elect Obama president.
“What really does lay bare is, in part, we’re still locked in this notion that if you appeal to white folks, then there must be something wrong,” Obama said. “Part of it has to do with fear, which is, you know what, we don’t want to get too excited about the prospects here because we feel like we’ll be let down again.
“My attitude is, let’s try it. Let’s do it,” he said. “Why say we can’t do something. Let’s take a chance and see if we can.”
But he continued to offer a broader message, calling for average Americans to have a stronger voice in Washington so that issues involving health care, poverty and the war in Iraq would be handled competently.
“We have to tie the specific struggles of the African-American communities to the broader struggle for justice and freedom all across this country,” he said. “I want everybody to recognize that we need to turn the page.”