Comedian Bill Maher had it right –did no one notice Barack Obama was black before South Carolina?

Up to that primary, the contenders handled race rather responsibly. But in the heat of competition, the race factor came up in a nuanced, inexplicit way. Defensive sensitivities then surged forward.

Hillary Rodham Clinton simply over-credited Lyndon Johnson by saying Martin Luther King’s dream didn’t get realized until Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act. Of course, it took a movement to get him and Congress to that point.

But when Obama said Clinton’s statement was “unfortunate” and “ill-advised” to say it that way, he leveraged sensitivities that cast Clinton in the wrong light. He could have said instead she gave a flawed version of those historic events.

The lesson to take away is not who won but how voters get used in the situation. Neither candidate was completely wrong, nor fully correct, either.

But the subliminal message was that Obama was the injured party because he has more authority to know what those events meant because he is black. There I disagree.

At some point, claims on the events and the brave deeds leading up to a resolution that won people civil rights have to go into the public domain. They are not the exclusive province of any single group, but belong to those who were there, who did something useful, who supported and who saw it through.

That’s why giving credit or wanting it, as if this were a rubber-chicken awards banquet, doesn’t cast either Clinton or Obama in a favorable light.

In terms of how he played it, Obama reached out to his black affinity group and it helped push him to a solid win in the South Carolina primary. He was not so much right on the substance of the matter as he was correct to avoid throwing the first punch.

The public easily gets derailed from the main focus this way, which I think is happening here. Race and gender are considerations when those are the basis for infringing on people’s rights. Otherwise our attention, it seems to me, ought to go into discerning who proposes a clear policy path from the country we are to the one the candidate thinks we ought to have.

Also, what unimpeachably qualifies this person not just to lead but to lead in the right direction? We have had it with toxic leaders. And here race and gender can be part of the leader’s identity. The 21st-century lesson for us to have clearly in our minds is that because they have one different from us does not deny us ours.

Gender is a foregone conclusion. The United States is no leader when it comes to selecting a female chief of state. As for race, the issue to decide is, which race? The monopoly dialogue that narrowly casts a black-and-white nation is long past. In fact, figures show our nation might be a lot more different than how we portray it.

A survey by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reports that intermarriages involving blacks and whites increased 400 percent (and 1,000 percent for white and Asian marriages) in the last 30 years. Meanwhile, 47 percent of white, 60 percent of black and 90 percent of Hispanic teens reported dating someone of “another race.”

So what are we going to call the progeny of our new society? And will future politicians have a race card to play?

There’s a lesson from history to guide us. John Charles Chasteen, the distinguished University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill history professor, in his excellent book “Americanos: Latin America’s Struggle for Independence,” says it in his prologue. Before the region’s independence struggles that began in 1807-08, mostly against Spain, the term “Americano” used to mean exclusively people of European descent.

By 1825, when the struggles ended, “Americanos” were all the people — of European, indigenous, African and mixed descents — who formed the majority of the population.

What’s evidently lacking now is our own Americano perspective. It’s a term to think about, nearly 200 years later, as a way to denote the formation of a new population that doesn’t have the hang-ups of the past.

(Jose de la Isla, author of “The Rise of Hispanic Political Power,” writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail joseisla3(at)

Comments are closed.