Forty years after the murder of Martin Luther King, the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama has once again led America to search its soul.
Is Barack Obama a traitor to white America because the preacher in his church – the man who converted him, married him, baptised his children – occasionally reminds his flock that “white folk’s greed runs a world in need”?
Or is Obama a traitor to black America because he went to “white” universities and wears nice suits? Was his grandmother a racist, as he recently implied, because, like a “typical white person”, she was afraid of young black men on the streets?
Or is he a racist for disparaging his grandmother? Is he too black, not black enough, or not black at all? And what does it mean to be “black” anyway, if your mother was white and you grew up in Hawaii?
To all of these questions, and many more, you will find answers – hundreds and hundreds of answers – on every blog, in every newspaper, on every chat show, in every living room in America.
That’s because Americans have been absorbed, for the past month or so, in one of their periodic public debates about race. Usually, these debates are provoked by a controversial event, such as the OJ Simpson trial.
This one was provoked by a presidential candidate and his church’s minister, but no matter. Though it might sound like cacophony to the British ear, the conversation does, if you listen closely, reveal the complexity of the state of race relations in America.
To see what I mean, first look back. By coincidence, the debate has been taking place in the run-up to the anniversary of the murder of Martin Luther King: the charismatic civil rights leader was shot in Memphis, Tennessee, on the evening of April 4, 1968 – 40 years ago today.
At that time, the racial divide in America was profound. Parts of the South were segregated, as were many establishment institutions – universities, law firms, Wall Street. Only a handful of blacks served in Congress. Following King’s murder, there were riots across the United States.
The violence left physical and mental scars. To this day, many of King’s family and followers, Jesse Jackson among them, believe that the US government organised the assassination.
Cut to the present, and it’s clear that the changes over the past 40 years are not superficial. Segregation is illegal, and most big cities have, or have had, black mayors. There are blacks in Congress, on the Supreme Court, on Wall Street, and, for the past seven years, running foreign policy.
There are black students at Princeton, where Michelle Obama studied, and at Harvard Law School, where Barack Obama studied. There hasn’t been a black president of the United States yet, but we are closer than ever to electing one.
Nevertheless, 40 years, while enough for Moses and the Israelites, hasn’t been quite long enough for all Americans, on both sides of the colour divide, to shake off all the attitudes acquired during the previous two centuries.
But be careful when trying to interpret them from across the Atlantic. These attitudes aren’t necessarily as black and white, so to speak, as they used to be.
One of the great surprises of the Obama campaign, for example, is the way in which it has so far exposed not white racism, as might have been expected, but black prejudice and paranoia.
It is true, as some have complained, that the mainstream media showed only short clips from the “controversial” sermons of Obama’s preacher, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, thereby distorting the reverend’s message, which is far more religious than political.
But it is also true that more sustained viewing of his sermons – now possible thanks to YouTube – reveals a man who believes that the US government distributes addictive drugs in ghettoes and invented Aids to “put down” the black community.
White Americans think these are bizarre conspiracy theories; some black Americans, Obama’s fellow congregants among them, assume them to be true.
The other surprise has been the nature of the predicted backlash against Obama. Liberal white women, rather than conservative white men, have turned out to be his most bitter opponents.
The feminist Gloria Steinem, the politician and former vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, and even Hillary Clinton herself have all implied that the support for Obama is not only sexist but unfair.
Being a black man, in their view, is no disadvantage, but rather an unreasonable advantage. Ferraro put it most succinctly when she declared: “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman of any colour, he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is.”
After she said that, Ferraro was attacked for racism, which, of course, she denied. But racist or not, those comments were revealing. They showed something that everyone knows but rarely mentions.
Whole groups of Americans feel discriminated against because they think some things are easier for black men. Which pretty much destroys the notion, much beloved of foreigners in general and Europeans in particular, that in America you have to be a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant to get ahead.
Yet how long will the expression “black man” or “white woman” continue to mean anything ? The campaign has revealed not just the slipperiness of the term “racism” but also the shakiness of American racial definitions.
Obama is considered “black” at least partly because he himself decided when much younger to be “black”. He broke up with a white girlfriend, joined a “black” church, and elected to make his political career in the “black” South Side of Chicago.
He also married a woman who had far fewer qualms about her ethnicity than he did: Michelle Obama’s senior thesis at Princeton was a sociological investigation of Princeton-educated blacks.
Nevertheless, if one wants to get technical about it, Obama is not in fact black, but “multi-racial”, as are millions of Americans. The 2000 census counted 3.1 million inter-racial couples, about six per cent of all married couples.
That same census also allowed people – for the first time – to identify themselves as belonging to more than one race: 7.3 million Americans, or about three per cent, did so. These aren’t overwhelming numbers, but they aren’t insignificant either.
The true story is even more complicated. Several years ago, the New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright published a long investigation of racial definitions in America which pointed out that nearly every time a census was taken the definitions of race were different; that the vast majority of “black” Americans could call themselves “multi-racial” if they wanted to; that the number of inter-racial marriages increased every year.
Ordinary citizens and government officials often cling to traditional racial categories for reasons which range from the financial – certain public grants are available to people of certain races – to the personal. Like young “Barry” Obama, they simply want to belong. But for how much longer can such categories mean very much at all?
When he is at his rhetorical best, Obama often sounds as if he wants to discard racial categories altogether. “We are all one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America,” is how he put it in 2004, to enormous applause.
A couple of weeks ago, in the speech he made following the mass exposition of the Rev Wright’s views, he put it like this: “I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.”
And indeed there are Americans, of every race and every hue, who want Obama to succeed precisely because he talks like this, precisely because he points towards a post-racial future – a future in which the painful national conversation about race will reach a resolution at last.