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20081101issuecovus400Barack Obama won the 2008 election!!! The first black American president.

I was overseas in Rome at the time. There were posters of him all over the place. One said “Il Mondo Cambia” (“The world changes”), another said, “Yes He Can” and a third said, “Oh yeah”.

Overseas, people seemed to think it was a great day in American history. They were proud of America! It was almost as if Obama had become the president of the world, not just 4.6% of it.

It was not till I got back home to America that I began to hear of the ugly doubts and fears: the flags at half-mast, white people buying guns, the Associated Press asking whether whites should be frightened.

Sad. But what is sadder still is that it does not surprise me. There is something dark and ugly in the American soul that is still far from dead. A side that has been there for hundreds of years and which Sarah Palin tried to call forth.

Obama’s victory speech – the whole thing, not the little bits that CNN kept showing – was so beautiful it made me cry. No speech has ever affected me like that. I know he will be a great man, one of the best presidents America has ever had. A good thing too since we seem to be entering bad times.

Of all the reactions I liked that of Condoleezza Rice the best, a black Republican who remembers the Jim Crow South. I forget what she said, but the look on her face – the joy, the pride and the happy wonder – said it all.

The best newspaper headline: “In Our Lifetime”. How many of us even a year ago ever thought we would live to see this day?

It seems too good to be true. So good that it makes me afraid that something terrible will take it all away.

Barack Obama is only a man. He cannot walk on water. He cannot cast out demons from the American soul. He cannot work wonders: America will remain divided by race. But a black president is still a huge step forward and a cause for hope.

Most white people voted for McCain, it is true, yet Obama won because race in America is changing: partly because it is not as white as it used to be, partly because the bad old Jim Crow ideas of race are dying out (even as the more subtle ones of colour-blind racism live on).

If nothing else, with a black man as the commander-in-chief and a black woman as the first lady – the closest thing America has to a king and queen – white people will never be able to think about blacks quite the same way again.

And, if nothing else, my two sons, 11 and 13, who take Obama’s victory for granted, being too young to understand how wonderful a thing it is, they will know – better yet, take for granted – that they can do anything they set their minds to.

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Christopher Hitchens has come out for Obama, but mainly because of how sad the Republicans are (the bold lettering is mine):

...the Obama campaign’s choice of the word erratic to describe McCain is also an insinuation. But really, it’s only a euphemism. Anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear had to feel sorry for the old lion on his last outing and wish that he could be taken somewhere soothing and restful before the night was out. The train-wreck sentences, the whistlings in the pipes, the alarming and bewildered handhold phrases—”My friends”—to get him through the next 10 seconds. I haven’t felt such pity for anyone since the late Adm. James Stockdale humiliated himself as Ross Perot’s running mate. And I am sorry to have to say it, but Stockdale had also distinguished himself in America’s most disastrous and shameful war, and it didn’t qualify him then and it doesn’t qualify McCain now.

The most insulting thing that a politician can do is to compel you to ask yourself: “What does he take me for?” Precisely this question is provoked by the selection of Gov. Sarah Palin. I wrote not long ago that it was not right to condescend to her just because of her provincial roots or her piety, let alone her slight flirtatiousness, but really her conduct since then has been a national disgrace. It turns out that none of her early claims to political courage was founded in fact, and it further turns out that some of the untested rumors about her—her vindictiveness in local quarrels, her bizarre religious and political affiliations—were very well-founded, indeed. Moreover, given the nasty and lowly task of stirring up the whack-job fringe of the party’s right wing and of recycling patent falsehoods about Obama’s position on Afghanistan, she has drawn upon the only talent that she apparently possesses.

Read the whole thing on Salon.com: “Vote for Obama”.

I do not agree with everything that Hitchens has said over the years, but I respect him for being honest enough to call a spade a spade. And in this case I think he is mostly right.

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As I write this a month before the 2008 election for the next American president, Barack Obama is leading in the opinion polls over John McCain by 11 percentage points. So at the rate things are going Obama should crush McCain.

But wait, not so fast!

In 1982 Tom Bradley ran for governor of California. He was leading in the polls and even on election day the exit polls showed that he would win. But he lost.

Tom Bradley was black. As it turns out, when a black man runs against a white man in America, between 5% to 15% of white voters will lie when answering opinion polls and even exit polls. Maybe because they do not want to seem racist.

This is called the Bradley Effect. It affects not just blacks, but women too.

So will the Bradley Effect affect Obama, a black man running against John McCain, a white man? Well, it did in some of the Democratic primaries earlier in the year when he ran against Hillary Clinton, a white woman. You saw it in some of the states, but not all of them: mainly those that were less than 8% black. In other states stronger-than-expected black support was able to match or overcome the Bradley Effect.

The country as a whole is 13% black, so while Obama might not win by 11 points, he would still win. But in the primaries he was running against a white woman. Against McCain, a white man, the Bradley Effect should be worse.

The Bradley Effect only concerns whites who lie when answering polls. Some whites, of course, are plain about not voting for Obama just because he is black.

What the primaries told us:

Obama did well among those whites who are under 45 and have a university degree; he did poorly among whites who are old enough to remember Jim Crow.

Going state by state:

  • Obama won the 10 blackest states and 15 of the 20 whitest states.
  • Clinton won 16 of the 21 states in between – those that are between 4% and 19% black.

Going county by county:

  • Obama won the black belt of counties that stretches from Maryland to east Texas by way of Atlanta and goes up the Mississippi as far as Memphis.
  • Clinton won the redneck belt that runs just north of that from Arkansas to Pennsylvania by way of Kentucky. Black T-shirt country. The very places where people are most likely to Google the n-word.
  • Clinton did well in the Hispanic belt from south Texas to California.
  • Obama did well in the Yankee belt that runs from New England to Washington state by way of Minnesota. It is whiter than the redneck belt, but in general it is richer and more liberal.

In the closing days of the primary race, Hillary Clinton appealed to the white racist vote more and more nakedly. Now McCain and his supporters are starting to do that by drawing attention to Obama’s middle name (Hussein) and William Ayers, trying to make Obama seem different and dangerous.

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I saw this at the Black Snob:

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Remember this video, “Yes We Can”, the one where John Legend sang and Barack Obama spoke? Remember back in January 2008, way back then, before Super Tuesday when we thought Hillary Clinton would crush Obama like a bug? We all hoped and voted but never dreamed we would see this day.

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I love this picture. I saw it on Something Within. It shows Barack Obama with his ten-year-old daughter, Malia:

This picture was taken on July 4th 2008, the day Malia turned ten. They are at a Independence Day parade in Butte, Montana.

That book that Malia is reading, by the way, is “Outside Beauty” by Cynthia Kadohata. What Barack Obama is reading (not pictured) is “The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America” by Thurston Clarke (so says MSNBC).

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There is a good chance the 2008 election for the next American president could turn on Barack Obama’s patriotism. In fact there are already doubts about his love of country, like his not wearing a flag pin.

Towards the end of Hillary Clinton’s run for president, she appealed to white voters more and more nakedly. The over-45 white vote is Barack Obama’s biggest weakness, like it or not. Expect John McCain to take advantage of it too.

The easiest and safest way for McCain to say “Vote for me, I am white” without seeming to be racist about it is to play up his war record. He never has to say a bad word about Obama, trusting that enough whites will fill in the blanks on their own: Barack Obama is not a true American, he does not truly love America, you cannot trust the country to him.

True, Obama has never served his country in war like McCain did. But America was at peace in the early 1980s when he would have served. Meanwhile both Bill Clinton and the present George Bush avoided fighting in the war of their time, and yet no one has doubted their patriotism for one second.

Unlike John Kerry, Barack Obama has never given anyone reason to doubt his patriotism. There is no speech he gave in his university days, for example, where he said “God damn America”. He had a pastor once who said that, but Obama himself has never come close to saying anything like that.

Black patriotism is different than white patriotism, but it is still patriotism. To me it seems truer and deeper: it is not a sunshine patriotism built on sugarcoated lies.

Does Obama love his country? Of course: everyone knows his getting shot and killed is all too possible. It is why Colin Powell did not run in 1996. If putting yourself in harm’s way to serve your country does not prove a love of country, then nothing does.

Why is Obama’s patriotism constantly doubted? After all, no one ever doubted Hillary Clinton’s patriotism.

Because he is black.

The New Yorker’s sick attempt at humour on their cover last week shows the Obamas in the White House. He is dressed like a Muslim, she is dressed like a black revolutionary. The American flag is burning in the fireplace.

Where does that picture come from?

There is a part of white Americans that fears black men. It is the part that makes white women hold their handbags closer, the part that makes whites move out of a neighbourhood when blacks move in.

It is that part which fears Obama. In the back of too many white minds is the fear that Obama would use power to get back at whites for all the evil they have done to blacks. Payback time.

That is why they notice things like his flag pin – or lack of one. That is why his patriotism is even a question to be asked.

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I like what the Luscious Librarian said about Michelle Obama’s Afro on this week’s New Yorker cover:

… but what got me was not only the unfunny elitist satire that says “If you don’t get you’re just not sophisticated as we are”, but the depiction of Michelle Obama with an afro that somehow makes her sinister and terrorristic.

As a natural woman it is disheartening to still see the politics of hair played out on a national external scale. I understand that internally black folk have issues with straight and nappy (that’s hundreds of years of psychosocial indoctrination), but we really have a long way to go if the entire nation still feels that way.

That cover says that with my natural hair I am not to be trusted, I am serious and pro-black, which means that I am anti-white and because of that I am anti-America and to be feared. I resent it and I have to say if you tell a joke and you’re the only one laughing it’s because it’s not funny.

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acceptable blackness

Acceptable blackness is blackness that is acceptable to white Americans, blackness that does not threaten them or make them feel uncomfortable (racist). Barack Obama is a good example. So is Halle Berry, Will Smith, Michael Jordan, any black person in an ad, everyone on “The Cosby Show” and that pretty black woman on the evening news (every big American city seems to have one). Tupac Shakur and Malcolm X are not acceptably black.

Acceptable blacks often talk, dress and act like well-to-do white people. What white senator Joe Biden meant when he said Obama was “articulate and bright and clean”. Being light-skinned helps, but not necessary. So does smiling.

The idea caused something of a dust-up on the Internet in January 2008 when Bob Garfield wrote an article for “Ad Age”. He said Obama was acceptably black, so much so that white racists would love to vote for him to prove to themselves and others that they are not racist. Like having one of those black best friends.

Shark-fu read this and on her blog, Angry Black Bitch, she was, well, angry. She has been hearing this sort of thing most of her life. She grew up going to a white school, speaking proper English and even dressing white. She was acceptably black. White people told her so in so many words.

It made her blood boil:

Acceptable blackness is defined as the absence of overt culture and of difference. It is a level of conformity that requires absolute perfection…

Achieve that perfection and your black ass is acceptable … to a bunch of trigger happy assholes that soothe their privileged guilt by letting you tag along, all the while prepared to lay down harsh and rigid judgment should your perfect mask crack.

She does not like how it is whites, in their little, narrow racist minds, who determine what is “acceptable”; how you have to give up so much of your blackness and pretty much sell out to achieve it.

That is why so many who are “acceptably black” to whites are told by blacks that they are “not black enough”. Speak proper English and listen to rock music and suddenly you are “not black enough”.

But because “acceptable blackness” plays to a white audience and “black enough” to a black one, it is possible to please both.

It is not easy but it is possible: Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Chris Rock, James Earl Jones, Bill Cosby. I would love to know how they do it, but somehow they can put whites at ease with their blackness without having to act white to do it. It is the secret of their success.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, tries to achieve this by striking a balance by acting white but not too white. It is a thin, dangerous line: too many whites are waiting for the mask to crack.

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See it on television on CBS at 8:00 pm on Tuesday November 30th 2010.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1939) is an American Christmas story about a flying reindeer whose bright red nose helped Santa Claus to see his way through a bad snow storm so he could deliver Christmas gifts to boys and girls all over the world.

The story is the invention of Montgomery Ward, a department store. In 1939 it started out as a free colouring book and a song. In 1949 Gene Autry sang the song and it went to number one in America that Christmas. In 1964 it became a television Christmas special and has been shown on American television every year since.

Rudolph was born at the North Pole, the son of Donner, one of Santa’s seven flying reindeer. But Rudolph was not like the other reindeer: he was born with a red nose that sometimes lit up. He was different and therefore no good.

Rudolph tried to hide his difference, but soon all of the other reindeer knew. They laughed and called him names. They never let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games. He jumped higher than the others, but Santa still did not want him because of his nose.

So Rudolph left Christmas Town. He met up with Hermey, another runaway, an elf who wanted to fix teeth, not make toys like all the other elves. They joined up with Yukon Cornelius, who was looking for silver and gold.

After a narrow escape from Abominable, a giant snowman, they crossed the sea and found themselves at the Island of Misfit Toys. The king of the island was a flying lion. He would not let them stay for more than a night: the island was only for toys that no boy or girl wanted, like a boat that sank or a bird that swam.

In the middle of the night Rudolph struck out on his own, leaving Hermey and Yukon behind. He lived by himself. When he had grown up he went home but found no one there. They had gone looking for him and fell into the hands of Abominable. Rudolph tried to save them but was knocked out. Just as Abominable was about to eat him and his whole family, Hermey and Yukon came to save the day.

What made Abominable so mean was his bad teeth. Once Hermey pulled them out he became friendly.

Just when Rudolph and company got back to the North Pole, a big storm hit. The worst ever. Santa was going to call off Christmas. But then when he saw Rudolph’s nose, he said, “Rudolph with your nose so bright, won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?”

Rudolph was a hero. On the way they stopped at the Island of Misfit Toys and found children who would love them just the way they were.

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In October 1998 Toni Morrison famously said that Bill Clinton, a white man, was America’s first black president:

… white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.

What!? It sounded like something white liberals in New York would half-seriously say at a party. Not Toni Morrison. Not the author of “The Bluest Eye”. Not in the New Yorker magazine.

I was sure it was some kind of a mistake, but when I got the article and read the whole thing I found out she was serious, even if she did make the larger point that blacks, more so than whites, understood what Clinton was going through with the whole Monica Lewinsky thing: how he stood naked before the law, how his enemies were after him and there was little he could do.

Ten years later in a debate they asked Barack Obama, a man with black skin running for president, if Bill Clinton was the first black president. He said this:

I would have to investigate more of Bill’s dancing ability and some of this other stuff before I accurately judged whether he was, in fact, a brother.

He played it for laughs in what was otherwise a very serious debate.

What must Obama have thought of the question? Obama has spent years trying to come to terms with his blackness and here he is being asked about the blackness of a white man who never for one day or even one minute ever had to face these questions, much less their consequences.

Playing it off for laughs may have been the only graceful way Obama had of answering the question on sound-bite television. The question came out of left field and he had little time to frame an answer.

A few days later Dick Gregory brought some much needed common sense to the whole thing. He said, “Has Chelsea ever been pulled over by the white police because her dad was the black president?” He pointed out that Bill Clinton does not know what it is like to drive while black.

What makes you black is not poverty or a love of McDonald’s or growing up without a father. It is not even a certain nakedness before the law. It is not a way of talking, acting or dressing, like wiggers and assimilated Negroes think. It is having to live in a black skin in a white world.

So Clinton is not black in any important sense. Tiger Woods is black even if he lives in the Cablinasia of his mind, some perfect land where skin colour does not matter. And as for Obama, he is not mixed or biracial as some say, not in America, but just plain old black.

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Obama at Altgeld Gardens

Barack Obama was at Altgeld Gardens from 1985 to 1988. It was where he first became a community organizer.

If you see Obama’s life as following the pattern of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (think about it), then Altgeld Gardens was the Island of Misfit Toys.

Altgeld Gardens was a place without gardens, a low-rise housing estate that stands near the southern edge of Chicago, on the banks of the poisoned Calumet River. When it was built in the 1940s for black soldiers returning from the war, there was plenty of work in the nearby steel mills. But by the time Obama got there 40 years later the steel mills were all closed. There were street gangs and most lived in poverty. It was solidly black.

Across the street was a huge sewage plant. The parallel was not lost on Obama.

Obama got his degree at Columbia University in 1983. He told everyone he would become a community organizer and wrote to anyone who might help him. No luck. So he worked for two years in New York. For a while he even worked for Ralph Nader in Harlem

At last in 1985 someone answered one of his letters. Obama packed his belongings in his car and headed for Chicago. Not so much as a do-gooder, but in hopes of making sense of who he was.

When he got there Obama noticed that blacks talked quite a bit about what was wrong. They even had some good-sounding ideas, like black nationalism and self-esteem. But he also saw that an idea meant nothing unless it was backed by large numbers of people working together to put it into action.

So Obama’s challenge was to get poor blacks together in large enough numbers behind an issue so that the city would have to do something. The grass roots thing.

The man who brought him to Chicago was white. He saw poor blacks as poor but not as black. Maybe that was good in a way, but Obama saw that the people in Altgeld were not just fighting against poverty, they were also fighting the poison that whites had filled their minds with that made them hate their own blackness.

Whites blamed blacks for their own poverty. Blacks knew what a self-serving lie that was, but a part of them believed it: that when things went wrong it was because they were black, that deep down they were no good, just like white people said.

Obama was able to get work for some and worked to get the city to remove asbestos from Altgeld. It changed him. It showed what he could do. But it also showed him that he needed to rise in the power machine to to make the changes that would truly help Altgeld. So in 1988 he left to get his law degree at Harvard.

Some people even then believed he would one day become president.

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Obama in Hawaii

Barack Obama lived in Hawaii (1961-1967, 1971-1979) till age five and again from age 10 to 18. In between he lived in Indonesia. His mother sent him back to Hawaii at ten for his education. He got into one of the top schools there. Although his mother did return to Hawaii, she often worked abroad. When she did Obama, then known as Barry, lived with her parents, meaning his white grandparents.

In Indonesia Obama was simply a curious-looking American, but now back in America he was black.

Being black meant that the white and Asian girls would not date you unless you were a big sports hero. It meant that people called you names – and wondered why you made such a big deal about it. In sports it meant that less able white players were favoured over you.

It meant that whites tended to keep their distance from you. It meant that when they were nice to you it was done kind of as a favour – not out of any true respect.

It meant always living in someone else’s world where they made the rules. Where escape would be just that – escape, and therefore defeat.

His father was black and understood Hawaii better than most. But he was in Africa. He sent letters but they made little sense to Obama.

Obama’s family in Hawaii was white. They did not understand.

His best friend in high school was Ray, one of the few blacks at his school. Ray seemed to understand Obama better than anyone. And he got him into all the black parties – where the girls would take him seriously. Ray also had strong opinions about being black.

But Ray was only two years older than Obama and did not have all the answers.

So Obama shut himself in his room and read book after book by black authors like Baldwin, Ellison, Wright and Langston Hughes. Looking for answers. But, except for Malcolm X, being black always ended the same way: in bitterness and defeat.

One day he found out that his white grandmother was afraid of black men! And yet she loved him dearly and gave up so much for him. How could that be?

There was an old black poet that Obama knew, wise in years. He said his grandmother was right to be afraid: she knew blacks deep down hated her as a white person. He also told Obama that no white person could ever fully understand what it was to be black. Nor could any white person ever be fully trusted.

And yet Obama’s mother was white. Unlike Malcolm X, the white side of him was something he would have to make sense of and face up to sooner or later.

Although Obama seemed happy on the outside, on the inside he was torn apart by questions of who he was. He turned to drink and drugs to push those questions out of his mind.

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Obama in Indonesia

Barack Obama lived in Indonesia (1967-1971) from age five to ten. After his parents broke up and his father went back to Africa, his mother married a man from Indonesia named Lolo. She met him at the University of Hawaii. He was suddenly called back to his country along with all the other Indonesians studying abroad. She and Obama followed about a year later.

During that year Obama’s new stepfather was in the Indonesian army fighting in New Guinea. Leeches got in his boots to bite him and drink his blood. It could have been worse: those who had been studying in communist countries were thrown in prison or shot dead.

When Lolo got out of the army, the three of them went to live in Java. They lived at his house near what was then the edge of Jakarta, a place where people still washed their clothes in the river. Lolo had a monkey named Tata, a mango tree and two crocodiles.

Lolo took Obama under his wing as his son. He is the father of Obama’s sister Maya. He taught Obama how to fight and told him to be strong or the powerful will take advantage.

If you have seen Mel Gibson in “The Year of Living Dangerously”, it is the same time and place. But in the year or so between when Gibson left and Obama arrived the streets ran with blood during a failed communist uprising in which hundreds of thousands died.

Indonesia was not just poor, it was a hellhole. Obama dropped there from a star called America. Everywhere you went poor people held out their hands. Cruel men ruled the country for the benefit of their families and friends – and the ugly Americans who wanted the oil. One year the rains did not come, the next year they did not stop. The spirit of the people was broken: you cannot fight fate.

In the middle of all this his mother woke him up every morning before the sun rose and taught him English. And taught him the virtues she learned in a faraway world known as Kansas: to be fair, honest, straight-talking and think for himself. She held up his father in Africa as a shining example: a poor man who did right.

For two years he went to a Muslim school, where he was taught about Islam once a week, and then two years at a Catholic school.

One day Obama saw a picture in Life magazine of a black man trying to turn himself white. Doctors had found a way to make black skin white. It was a picture that has stayed with him ever since.

He looked at himself: he was black. He seemed all right. Was there something wrong with him that he did not know about? Or, what seemed just as frightening, maybe the world had gone mad and saw something in blackness that was not there.

At age ten his mother sent him to back to America to live with her parents so he could get a good education at one of the top schools in Hawaii.

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Apple-pie America is that part of America where nearly everyone is white and well-off, happy and innocent. The bad in the world always seems to be somewhere else – in a bad part of town, in a bad part of the world, in a bad part of history. Always there, never here. And when on occasion it is here, like with 9/11, then it is because madmen from somewhere else are behind it.

Its golden age was in the 1950s. From about 1955 to 1975, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war and Watergate destroyed the faith of many. But now that most Americans are too young to remember those things, apple-pie America is making a comeback.

Judging from Obama’s speech on race in March 2008, most Americans seem to believe in it.

To see if you live in apple-pie America, take this simple true/false test (for Americans only):

  1. America has done some bad things in the past, but it has got past all that.
  2. America makes mistakes, but it is well-meaning, not evil.
  3. Before the war in Iraq, Bush believed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
  4. I am not racist.
  5. I pretty much believe what I read in the newspapers or hear on the news.
  6. I trust the police.
  7. Most poor people are black.
  8. People are poor mainly because they are unwilling to work hard and better themselves.
  9. People overseas hate America for no good reason.
  10. People say bad things about America because they hate it.

Your score: Count the number of true statements: ten times that number is the probability that you live in apple-pie America.

If you do, then you are suffering from what is called moral blindness. You are like the daughter of a crimelord or a slaveowner: you want to enjoy the wealth and power but not think too much about where it comes from.

America is rich and powerful for some good and honest reasons, like market forces, as well as plain luck, but also for some bad and evil ones. That is why people from overseas hate America so much. That is why some of them felt the need to give their lives to knock down the Twin Towers in New York. Do not fool yourself.

Most black Americans do not seem to believe in apple-pie America, much less live there. Their forefathers came to the country as slaves and they see how white people are still acting. They are not fooled.

But most white Americans do seem to believe in it, whether they live there or not.

This difference between black and white America is causing trouble for Barack Obama, a black man who would be president. The things his wife and his minister said come from beyond the apple pie and unsettles many who live inside it.

Obama’s speech on race tried to smooth over this difference. But the trouble is, it is not just his wife and his minister who do not believe in the apple pie: neither does he.

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