HAMPTON, Va.—African-American voters should judge Sen. Barack Obama and other 2008 presidential candidates on how they will handle issues affecting the African-American community and not on race, gender or ethnicity.
That was the message of several key speakers Saturday at the annual State of the Black Union symposium. The two-day conference offered an examination of the progress the African-American community has made in this country and the problems still confronting it.
"I think the identity politics should not be based on race," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, a 2004 presidential candidate. "It should be based on agenda and policy—who stands for our best interests. We cannot put our people's aspirations on hold for anybody's career, black or white."
As the conversation at Saturday's session shifted from health care to education to politics, it quickly went to Obama, who kicked off his presidential candidacy Saturday in Springfield, Ill. Among the panelists were two African-Americans who have run for president, Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Sharpton strongly urged the nearly 10,000 people who filled Hampton University's Convocation Center not to select a candidate next year just because they want to see an African-American or a woman or a Hispanic in the White House for the first time.
Without naming Obama, Sharpton added that "just because you're our color doesn't make you our kind." He pointed to President Bush's secretaries of state, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, as examples of African-Americans he said haven't necessarily worked in the interest of the African-American community.
Sharpton also chided Obama for making his presidential announcement in Springfield rather than before the predominantly African-American audience at Hampton, and said the Illinois senator needs to declare "what's his embrace of our agenda."
Obama is part of a large and diverse Democratic presidential field that includes Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who is looking to become the first Hispanic to win the White House.
Within the African-American community, questions are being raised about Obama's African-American credentials.
Some people wonder whether Obama's mixed-race heritage dilutes his effectiveness on African-American issues. Others complain that he didn't earn his political stripes in the 1960s civil rights movement. Still others wonder about his Ivy League education and upscale Chicago address.
Jackson, who ran twice for president, said Obama's heritage shouldn't be an issue.
"Most of our forefathers were black and most of our forefathers were white," he said.
Obama faces a tough challenge in wooing African-American voters, recent polls indicate. A CBS News poll last month showed Clinton ahead of Obama among African-American voters, 52 percent to 28 percent.
Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland political science professor, said Clinton benefits from African-American affinity towards former President Bill Clinton, who appointed several African-Americans to Cabinet and key advisory positions during his eight years in the White House.
In the halls of Saturday's convocation here, participants had mixed views on Obama and his candidacy.
"Why should there be a discussion about ethnicity?" said Olive Ezell, a radio talk show host from Williamsburg, Va. "If he's a black American born in America, he's African-American and we should rally around him," Ezell said.
Pat Forde, a Hampton Roads area resident who came to the United States from Trinidad, said her questions about Obama have more to with his soul than his color.
"People say they are black, but then they get to a certain level and their perceptions change," she said. "I think he's more on the white side. I don't really think he's good for us."
When asked who she thought would work harder on behalf of African-Americans, Ford quickly chose Hillary Clinton.
"I think she's a little like her husband," she said. "I think she's for us."
Organizers of the conference said PBS would televise two 90-minute debates, one for Republican presidential candidates and the other for Democrats, based on Tavis Smiley's best-selling book, "The Covenant with Black America." The Democratic debate is set for June 28 at Howard University in Washington, D.C.; the Republican debate is scheduled Sept. 27 at Morgan State University in Baltimore.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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