America's First Black President?

What is it about Democratic hopeful Barack Obama that appeals to so many US voters?

Some say he's the best candidate to become 'commander in chief', others believe it's his natural charm and charisma which will take him all the way to the White House.


Have Your Say: Is America ready for a black President?

In Pictures: The Kenyan Obamas

To date, much of his PR has come from the fact that he's the only African American candidate running for the Oval Office. However the Democratic hopeful says the election isn't about race.

“I am rooted in the African-American community, but I'm not defined by it. I am comfortable in my racial identity but that's not all I am”, says Obama.

But how much of an issue is race to the average American citizen?

The latest polls reveal the white middle classes are already taken with Obama's charisma and his vision for 'change'. His vision has inspired Anglo-Americans, partly because he appears to have neutralised the race issue, and made people feel good about themselves.

So just how big is the race issue when it comes to US politics?

Watch the story here


All that Democratic primary carry-on in the US looks to be over, bar the proverbial shouting. Barack Obama's historic victory makes him the first African-American to gain presidential nomination. Hillary Clinton waged a 12-month battle against Obama that threatened to tear the Democrats apart and she's still balking at conceding defeat. As he says, Obama's win is the end of one journey and the beginning of another, the real battle with septuagenarian Republican candidate, John McCain. But what about race card? How heavily will that be played if he makes his bid for the White House? The BBC's Hillary Anderson asked folk right across the US what they thought of the articulate black man who would be president.

REPORTER: Hillary Anderson

We're in Barack Obama's home town, Chicago, to find out why he's being called the new John F. Kennedy. America is under attack abroad and divided at home – Obama is selling a dream of a new start.

PRESENTER: What if? What if there was hope instead of fear? Unity instead of division? What if we had a president who believes that we are one nation?

BARACK OBAMA, DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There is not a liberal America and a conservative America – there is the United States of America.

The son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas, Obama is breaking the mould of black politics.

BARACK OBAMA: I am rooted in the African-American community, but I'm not defined by it. I am comfortable in my racial identity but that's not all I am.

Chicago is Obama turf. They love him here. We stopped in at Obama's barber shop. They're convinced he's going to make history and win. Zarif, his barber, says the whole point about Obama is that his colour doesn't matter.

ZARIF: As everybody knows, you know, he's mixed race, and that's no problem and for people who mostly meet him they really don't see his colour I think.

Obama is not running for President as a black candidate, but as a candidate who happens to be black. The message he's sending – that race shouldn't matter. About time is the feeling here.

MAN: We're not dealing with things black or white anymore. Things have transition of grey. And we're in a grey state and what better time in a grey state of America than to pick a grey person.

Obama, born in Hawaii, raised in Indonesia, is cosmopolitan – he's modern, fresh, he's not about black issues. Voters flock to hear his promise to pull out of Iraq. He wants to fight poverty but black poverty's not his focus. A strong, fair economy would be good for everyone, he says. He's mainstream.

BARACK OBAMA: You have been frustrated because you see policies coming out of Washington that make the rich richer and the poor poorer and squeeze the middle class.

Past black presidential hopefuls like Jesse Jackson have run as distinctly black candidates – flamboyant and angry, emphasising the needs of minorities. Jackson won staggering numbers of black votes in his presidential campaigns of the '80s. He thought he was going to pull it off.

JESSE JACKSON, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Blacks can run this country. Blacks indeed can be congresspersons and senators, and supreme court members – they indeed can be president.

But Jesse Jackson didn't win. He accepts that Obama is using a different approach to win more white votes.

JESSE JACKSON: I think he has a right to try to shoot as broad a lens as he can, to maximise his coalition, I think it's the right thing to do. It's not just his fight to fight – we must all fight for racial justice, and general equality.

REPORTER: But he's fighting in a different way than you used to fight.

JESSE JACKSON: Well that's alright. Everybody has their own right to their own approach.

But even with his new-generation approach, Obama faces a huge challenge – America is not used to mainstream black candidates. Drew Westen, political psychologist, says Obama may not like it, but his race does matter.

PROFESSOR DREW WESTEN, POLITICAL PSYCHOLOGIST: There is no escaping that America's a divided nation – divided by race – and that even those of us who have, who consciously are not racist and don't make decisions based on race, are still influenced by a person, the person, the colour of a person's skin, whether we'd like to be or not.

Obama knows exactly what he's doing though. Bye-bye slums of black America, hello Barrington, Chicago. He has raised eye-popping sums of money from America's elite. Obama is a hit in well-heeled, liberal white suburbs like this. In this peaceful haven it's easy to imagine that America's race problems don't exist.

We've been invited to an Obama BBQ organised by enthusiastic local supporters.

WOMAN: If you stay long enough you can have lunch and dinner. Here you're more than welcome. Have fun! Thank you for coming out.

Neighbourhood do's like this have turbo-boosted his campaign.

WOMAN: I actually invented a recipe just for the event today. And it's my Barack the ribs, south-side Chicago-Hawaiian fusion. And we've got a bit of south side Chicago sauces mixed with some pineapple salsa, and some coconut, and a little bit of Asian twist in the spices. So we thought we'd blend it 'cause he's a blended kind of guy.

REPORTER: So do you see Barack Obama as a black candidate?

WOMAN: No, I see him as a global candidate.

The white middle classes are taken with Obama's charisma and his vision of unity. Today's America, they say, is not the country they grew up in.

FREDA WARD: George Bush has pretty much destroyed our country and if anybody can heal it, I think it's Barack Obama.

And, frankly, here they like the fact that he doesn't go on about black victims of poverty.

MARIANNE FARINAS DE LEON: Part of why I like him is because I think he represents everybody.

MIKE FARINAS DE LEON: He doesn't take the tack that Jesse Jackson would – it isn't so in your face and aggressive, ‘we deserve to be in this position'.

MARIANNE FARINAS DE LEON: That's what we like about him that he seems to care and represent everybody regardless of race, culture, religion, any of that.

Obama's vision has inspired whites partly because he appears to have neutralised the race issue and made people feel good about themselves.

PROFESSOR DREW WESTEN: He's every white person's fantasy of what they'd like a black man to be. You know he is, he's thoughtful, he's articulate, he's handsome, he doesn't fit any of the stereotypes of the dangerous, dark-skinned black male that people see every day on television, you know, hauled off in handcuffs by the police. He's the kind of man that Americans would like to imagine themselves being able to vote for and being able to say, you know what, race doesn't matter.

BARACK OBAMA: There is not a black America and a white America, a Latino America, an Asia America – there's the United States of America.

Obama's dreaming of an America that doesn't exist not in Jena, anyway. This is rural Louisiana. You'd be forgiven here for wondering which century it is. In this schoolyard one day several black children dared sit under what was known as the 'white tree'. It was where the white children always sat. The next morning nooses were hanging from its branches. The tree's now been cut down.

In the South, where hundreds of blacks were once lynched, nooses are a deeply provocative racist symbol. Now six black youths stand accused of badly beating a white boy in the racial tensions that followed. Together they face decades in jail. The white children who hung the nooses were not expelled. Mychal Bell, 17, was charged with attempted murder and held in an adult jail. He now faces lesser charges but he could still go to prison for years. His father, Marcus Jones, says there is one rule for blacks in this town, and another for whites.

REPORTER: How do you think African-Americans are seen in this town by white people?

MARCUS JONES: Less than human beings. A lot of the white people in this town haven't changed from 40 years ago so that's the reason this town hasn't changed.

CROWD(ALL SING): Well the first thing we did right Was the day we started to fight Keep your eyes on the prize Hold on Hold on.

It took a year for it to sink in, but in September thousands of black Americans descended on Jena demanding justice. Black organisations crowded in, all wanting a part of it. Civil right veterans like Al Sharpton were back in the thick of it.

AL SHARPTON, CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST; Are you ready to march? Are we going to march for justice?

Jena tapped deep-seated anger. Black men are sent to jail at a rate roughly seven times that for whites. On this day black America was saying the justice system is racist.

REPORTER: Demonstrations on this scale rarely happen nowadays in America. This is old-style race politics – it's angry, it's confrontational and it's in your face, the exact opposite of Barack Obama's approach.

Barack Obama wasn't at the march. If you're mainstream you don't march. You make statements instead.

BARACK OBAMA: Jena exposed glaring inequalities in our justice system that were around long before that schoolyard fight broke out. It's time to seek a new dawn of justice in America.

Obama says Jena is an American problem, not just a black one. But almost the only white faces at the march were journalists and this couple.

MAN: A bunch of bullshit, if you want my opinion. Why is that?

WOMAN: That's not nice. I just never thought I'd see anything like this in Jena. We have some good black people here, friends.

CROWD: What do we want? Freedom. What do we want? Freedom. When do we want it? Now.

NEWSREADER: In Alabama, a long jumpy week of raw nerves and tension drags on.

The fight for civil rights reached its climax in 1965 in Selma, Alabama. Thousands faced down police brutality demanding the right to vote. Before all this blacks and whites here were segregated. Obama says this struggle is central to who is he is because his parents were black and white.

BARACK OBAMA: Don't tell me I don't have a claim on Selma, Alabama. Don't tell me I'm not coming home when I come to Selma, Alabama.

But Obama now thinks the civil rights movement has done most of its work.

BARACK OBAMA: The previous generation, the Moses generation, pointed the way. They took us 90% of the way there. But we still got that 10% in order to cross over to the other side.

AL SHARPTON: I don't think we're 90% there when you see that we're still doubly unemployed. When you see that we are still in the worst health areas, number one in infirmities, when education is markedly under-financed in our community. I think we have made progress in 40 years, but 90% is to me, a much higher mark than I would give.

We tracked down Obama on the campaign trail to ask him if he felt he had to gloss over America's race problems to get votes. The question seemed to catch him off guard.

REPORTER: You say there's no black America, no white America.


REPORTER: You know there is – are you trying sidestep the race issue because you're afraid it could hurt your campaign?

BARACK OBAMA: That's a silly question. That question doesn't make any sense.

REPORTER: It's not silly – in Selma, Alabama, you said black America is 90% there.

BARACK OBAMA: It is a silly question because when I say there is no black America and white America what I'm talking about is aspirationally we all come together as Americans.

But America's races haven't come together over his campaign, not entirely. He needs them to, that's the point. Obama is accused by black leaders of acting too white, others think he's too black.

PROFESSOR DREW WESTEN: In America you can run from race but you can't hide. His race is the colour of his skin. The reality is that 75%-85% of white Americans still hold negative unconscious feelings towards African-Americans and that even if you don't want to talk about race it's still the elephant in the room.

And the people who do want to talk about race are some of his opponents on the right.

SONG: Barack the Magic Negro Lives in D.C.

This satirical song about Obama's candidacy has been transmitted on radio across America. Other attacks have joked about his name – he's been called 'Obama Osama'. But the most damaging attack focused on Obama's time at this school in Indonesia. It came from a conservative Website and it wasn't true.

BARACK OBAMA: It was a pretty scurrilous article suggesting not only that I'd gone to madrasses but that my family members were Muslim radicals and we didn't make much of it – you can't control what's on the Web. What was surprising was that it eventually bubbled up into the mainstream media.

PROFESSOR DREW WESTEN: What the right would ideally like to do is simply to associate him with anything negative they can associate him with, so whether it's the idea of Islamic extremism – that he's not really Christian, he's really Islamic – when this is 85% a Christian country. The whole point is he's not like us and that's what, that's what you really want to convey if you want to run a kind of a stealth racist attack on Barack Obama.

If Obama is going to somehow glide through this treacherous territory and become America's next president, he needs to win part of the South. No president has ever been elected without wining at least one Southern state. But this is Republican country, a tough battleground for any Democrat, especially for a black one. In South Carolina we dropped in at Hog Heaven, a roadside BBQ joint. Here they are nervous of Obama – they've been watching TV.

J.T,BIKER: There is a relationship in his family somewhere. I'm not, I can't say for sure, but there is obviously some sort of Muslim, Arab-type thing involved there. Obama? Sounds like Osama to me, you know, go ahead.

REPORTER: Does that make you nervous?

J.T: No. No, no, well yeah it does. It does. I mean you don't know, you know – you never know.

REPORTER: What? What? You think he's a terrorist?

J.T: Well he could be the guy. He could be the dark horse guy. You never know.

It doesn't matter here that the Obama never went to a madrassa and isn't a Muslim.

BOB DUNCAN, BIKER: Yeah, he's a Christian but if he still has some blood going back or something going back in his time to Muslim, right

REPORTER: Well, you think that's enough to make people nervous about him?

BOB DUNCAN: I think it's enough to make some people nervous, sure.

In South Carolina it is also, simply, that Obama is black.

MARK BARNES, BIKER: I don't want to really come right out and say it but unfortunately it's true that there are people in this state that feel that blacks are inferior because they have an attitude that's 200 years old.

South Carolina was slave state. Slave plantations still scatter the landscape. Hard-lined attitudes linger. For whites and blacks here, race still permeates everything. Two centuries later, blacks are still far poorer than whites here, proportionately three times as many are under the poverty line. Obama, who doesn't have slave ancestry, is criticised for not understanding how deep America's racial sores run.

KEVIN GRAY, FORMER JESSE JACKSON CAMPAIGN OFFICIAL: It's all about race and slavery in South Carolina, whether or not people want to accept it. Blacks who are descendents of enslaved Africans have a different attitude than, let's say, new African immigrants into the country. You can't run away from the history of the country if you are talking about turning a page, well, you know you ought to read what's on the page before you turn it, and so a lot of us look at Obama as not understanding that history.

This long strip of South Carolina is known as the 'Corridor of Shame'. It's one of the poorest, most derelict parts of America and it's mostly black.

BARACK OBAMA: There is a assumption on the part of some commentators that somehow the black community is so unsophisticated that the minute you put an African-American face up on the screen, that they automatically say, “That's our guy.” A black candidate has to earn black votes the same way that he's got to earn white votes. And that's exactly how it should be.

Deep in the rural areas we met Barbera, a single mother. She's makes ends meet with government food handouts. Her son Michael helps with the children – there are eight of them in all. Obama will be tested here on what he plans to do about black poverty. Working long hours in a fast food joint, Barbera's struggled to be there for her children.

BARBERA KIRKLAND: I couldn't support them, not then. I couldn't be near either to help them with their homework or chastise them or be their mother figure.

Barbera is pessimistic about Obama's chances because she sees racism everywhere.

BARBERA KIRKLAND: This country always been run by the white man. Ain't never been run by the black man. And that black man wants to do a lot of struggling to get there and it might even cost him his life.

REPORTER: So you think attitudes are too entrenched?

BARBERA KIRKLAND: Yes. It's really, it's hard. You know, it's hard. You look at people every day and don't realise they hate you for the colour of your skin.

Obama visited a school here in August. Yes, he says, blacks have it worse, but the answer isn't lots of black programs, it's a strong economy. He says this isn't just a race issue. His message for blacks is tough – clean up your rubbish, stop having children you can't care for, and, here he adds, be better parents.

BARACK OBAMA: What parents are doing is critical and parents need to parent. And they need to turn off the television and put away the video games and emphasise educational excellence in their children.

But it's not quite that simple. This is Allendale High where Barbera's son Michael goes to school. It's almost completely black. Around 40% of these children don't graduate. Many white children here go to private schools – most do graduate and go to college.

Michael had to look after the family when his mother was at work. Michael's been put onto a slow learning program. The pressures at home were too much. Many in this school have similar stories.

MICHAEL KIRKLAND: Outside I may look OK but inside it's tearing me down, it's tearing me apart. 'Cause every day I saw my mother just struggling and struggling out there trying to make it for her and the best of us. And knowing me I have to put in part time of my work to help her out.

Michael wants to get a football scholarship to college. But his coach, Wayne Farmer, says he probably won't even finish school. Michael's future at the lower end of society looks set. Coach Farmer says that's how it is for blacks here.

COACH FARMER: We're not living in a perfect world. Racism's there. We're not living in a fair world. A lot of things are already decided, predicted. It's racism in our professions, racism in the school system – it's racism everywhere.

Unlike Obama, Hillary Clinton doesn't have to worry about looking too black. And, crucially, she is capitalising on the immense popularity of her husband, who won a place in hearts of Africans-Americans.

PROFESSOR DREW WESTEN: Bill Clinton was such a popular figure among African-Americans – people joke that he was our first black president and if you ever see Bill Clinton interacting with black people, he seems absolutely colour blind. He doesn't squirm like most white politicians squirm trying to figure out do I call them 'African-American' or 'black'?

REPORTER: And does that help Hilary?

PROFESSOR DREW WESTEN: It helps Hilary tremendously.

Obama's built his campaign on the idea of a nation that can look beyond race. Barack Obama has broken through as a mainstream candidate but the simplest of things – the fact that he's black – seems inescapable. Why?

PROFESSOR DREW WESTEN: It's taken 150 years for us to go from slavery to a black man having a real shot at running for the presidency. It could be a lot more years before those unconscious residues of racism that are in all of our heads are diminished enough that a black man could actually win.

Barack Obama is in overdrive trying to pull this off. His ideas resonate here because they are deeply inspirational. But he may be a man ahead of his times. Obama believes America is ready for a black president if only it would look forward.

BARACK OBAMA: I think if I don't win this race, it will be because of other factors. It's going to be because I have not shown to the American people a vision for where the country needs to go that they can embrace.