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BBC OnePanorama


Last Updated: Thursday, 18 October 2007, 10:46 GMT 11:46 UK
Transcript - Is America Ready For A Black President?



Reporter: Hilary Andersson

DATE: 15:10:07

JEREMY VINE: Good evening, I'm Jeremy Vine and this is Panorama.

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

VINE: Barack Obama could be the first black American to win the most powerful job in the world. He says race should no longer matter.

MARIANNE FARINAS DE LEON: He seems to care and represent everybody regardless of race, culture, religion.

VINE: But can he win enough white votes without losing the black ones.

KEVIN GRAY: He doesn't want to scare white people by being with those rowdy negroes.

DREW WESTEN: He's every white person's fantasy of what they'd like a black man to be.

VINE: A year ago few people had even heard of Barack Obama. Now he is a political sensation, raising nearly 80 million dollars for his campaign and becoming a serious candidate for the White House. Tonight his wife Michelle is in London raise even more. So can he stay in the race and is America really ready to elect its first black president?

NAR: He's come out of the blue and is taking America by storm. (Cos I've got a crush on Obama, I can't wait till 2008... Baby you're the best candidate....) Can you imagine this for Gordon Brown? We're in Barack Obama's home town Chicago to find out why he's being called the new John F Kenney. America is under attack abroad and divided at home. Obama is selling a dream of a new start.

Obama campaign advert

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?

OBAMA: There is not a Liberal America and a Conservative America, there is the United States of America.


NAR: The inexperienced young senator is up against the heavyweight Hillary Clinton for the democratic nomination. She's ahead in the polls. The son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas, Obama is breaking the mould of black politics.

Speaking to CBS
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.

NAR: Chicago is Obama turf, they love him here. We stopped in at Obama's barber's 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 don't really see his colour I think.

NAR: 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.

We're not dealing with things black or white anymore. Things have a 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.

NAR: 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 is not his focus. A strong, fair economy would be good for everyone he says. He's mainstream.

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.


NAR: 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 from his presidential campaigns of the 80s. He thought he was going to pull it off.

JACKSON: Blacks can run this country, blacks indeed can be congress persons and senators and supreme court members, they indeed can be president.

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

I think he has a right to try to shoot as broad a lens as he can, to maximise his coalition I think is the right thing to do. It's not just his fight, the fact that we must all fight for racial justice and gender equality.

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

JACKSON: Well that's alright, everybody has their own... right to their own approach.

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

Political Psychologist
There is no escaping that America is 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 the colour of a person's skin, whether we'd like to be or not.

NAR: Obama knows exactly what he's doing though, bye bye slums of black America, hello Barrington Chicago. He's 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 barbeque organised by enthusiastic local supporters.

MICHELLE HARDMAN: If you stay long enough you can have lunch and dinner here, you're more than welcome. Have fun. Thank you for coming out.


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

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 cos he's a blended kind of guy.

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

No, I see him as a global candidate.

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

George Bush has pretty much destroyed our country and if anybody could heal it I think it's Barack Obama.

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


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

MIKE: He doesn't take the tack that Jessie Jackson would. It isn't so in your face and aggressive, we deserve to be in this position.

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

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

DREW WESTEN: He's every white person's fantasy of what they'd like a black man to be. You know, 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."

OBAMA: There is not a black America and a white America, a Latino America, an Asian American, just the United States of America.


NAR: Obama is 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 school yard 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 has 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. Michael Bell, 17, was charged with attempted murder and was 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's one rule for blacks in this town and another for whites.

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

Oh less than human beings. A lot of the white people in this town haven't changed from 40 years ago, so that means this town hasn't changed.

NAR: Most whites here think the town has been maligned by outsiders, though Billy Wayne Fowler on the school board admits racism is still alive.

La Salle Parish School Board
The world still sees Jena, Louisiana as the most racist town in the world, and that bothers me. We're not. If I could take you back 60 years in time, compared to where we are today, I think you'll be complementing us on the progress that we've made, and that does not mean to say that we're perfect because we're not.

[Group Singing at black gathering]
Well the first thing we did right,
Was the day we started to fight,
Keep your eyes on the prize,
Hold on. Hold on.

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

AL SHARPTON: Are you ready to march?


SHARPTON: And we're gonna march for justice.


NAR: 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. 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.

NAR: 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.

WHITE MAN: A bunch of bullshit if you want my opinion (laugh)

NAR: Why is that?

WIFE: [hushing husband] Oh, that's not nice. I just never thought I'd see anything like this in Jena. We have some good black people here, friends.

NAR: Like many of America's black leaders, Jessie Jackson was at the march. He had attacked Obama the day before in a newspaper. He said: "If he were a candidate he'd have been there and Obama was acting like he was white." We found Jackson on a day that was all about black unity - he probably wished we hadn't.

You were reported as saying that you thought Barack Obama was acting too white.

JACKSON: Well they misinterpreted what I was saying.

NAR: What did you mean by that?

JACKSON: I really made it very clear that I offered my support for Barack unsolicited and still support him so that's easily a dead issue.

NAR: One of Jessie Jackson's former campaign managers is more blunt about Obama.

Former Jesse Jackson campaign official
He doesn't want to scare white people by being with those rowdy negroes who are marching in the street, complaining that white folk aren't doing enough, or white folk haven't changed, when he's trying to say that his candidacy represents a change in America, then, you know, if he goes back and marches with them, then that pretty much diminishes all that.

NAR: Al Sharpton, a leading figure in the civil rights movements says Obama has taken sides on the race issue in a blatant political manoeuvre.

Has he taken enough of a stand? It's according to what he wants to stand for. If he's trying to play mainstream politics he hasn't the right to do that. And he hasn't the right to say I'm going to play cautious because I'm trying to win different votes. But then if he does that, as I have told him, then you don't have the right to expect civil rights leaders and all of African Americans to support you. You can't have it both ways.

March 1965

What do you want?

PEOPLE: Freedom

When do you want it?


In Alabama, a long jumpy week of raw nerves and tension drags out.

NAR: The fight for civil rights reached its climax in 1965 in Selma, Alabama. Thousands face 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 he is because his parents were black and white.

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

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

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 you'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 underfinanced 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 it.

NAR: 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.

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

OBAMA: Right.

NAR: You know there is. Are you trying to side step the race issue...


NAR: .. because you're afraid it could hurt your campaign?

OBAMA: No, that's a silly question. I don't.. that question doesn't make any sense.

NAR: Well it's not silly, in Southern Alabama, you said that 90%...

OBAMA: No, no, it is a silly question... let me... it is a silly question because when I say there's no black America and white America what I'm talking about is aspirationally we all come together as Americans.

NAR: But Americas 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.

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

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

[Sings] Barack the magic negro lives in DC. The LA Times they called him that cos he's not authentic like me....

NAR: This satirical song about Obama's candidacy has been transmitted on radio across America. Other attacks have joked about his name.

The Rush Limbaugh Show
July 2006
Obama Osama leaves star power....

NAR: But the most damaging attack focused on Obama's time at the school in Indonesia. It came from a Conservative website and it wasn't true.

OBAMA: It was a pretty scurrilous article suggesting not only that I'd gone to a madrasas but that.. you know, my family members were Muslim radicals and... you know, 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.

Fox & Friends
January 2007


The first decade of his life raised by his Muslim father as a Muslim, and was educated in a madrasa financed by Saudis, they teach this Wahabism which pretty much hates us.

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 you really want to convey if you want to run a kind of a stealth racist attack on Barack Obama.

NAR: 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 winning at least one southern state. But this is Republican country, a tough battleground for any democrat, especially a black one. In South Carolina we dropped in at Hog Heaven, a roadside barbeque joint. Here they're nervous of Obama. They've been watching TV.

There is a relationship in his family somewhere, I can't say for sure, but there is obviously some sort of Muslim or Arab type thing involved there. Obama? It sounds like Osama to me.

NAR: Does that make you nervous?

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

NAR: What, what? Terrorist?

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

NAR: It doesn't matter here that Obama never went to a Madrasa and isn't a Muslim.

Yeah, he's a Christian but if he still has blood some blood going back or something going back in his time to Muslim like.

NAR: What do you think, that's enough to make people nervous about him?

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

NAR: In south Carolina it is also simply that Obama is black.

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.

NAR: South Carolina was a 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.

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 descendants 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're talking about turning a page or.. you know, you ought to read what's on the page before you turn it, and so a lot of us look at Obama is not understanding that history.

NAR: 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. In January South Carolina will be one of the first states to vote in the primaries. The outcome could be pivotal. Obama needs black votes here. Right now he's struggling.

OBAMA: There is an 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.

NAR: Deep in the rural areas we met Barbara, a single mother. She 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 Barbara has struggled to be there for her children.

I couldn't support them, not then, I couldn't have been there either to help them with their homework or chastise them, or to be that mother figure.

NAR: Barbara is pessimistic about Obama's chances because she sees racism everywhere.

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

NAR: So you think attitudes are too entrenched.

BARBARA: Yes, it's really hard, you know, it's hard you can look at people every day and don't realise they hate you because of your skin.

NAR: Obama visited a school here in August. Yes, he says, blacks have it worse, but the answer isn't lots of black programmes. 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 he adds "be better parents."

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.

NAR: But it's not quite that simple. This is Allendale High where Barbara's son, Michael, goes to school. It's almost completely black. Around 40% of these children never graduate. Many white children here go to private schools. Most do graduate and go to college.

TEACHER: Now first thing we talk about is texture....

NAR: Michael had to look after the family when his mother was at work.

TEACHER: Mike, what do you say about it?

MICHAEL: Sugar is something sweet.

TEACHER: Sweet, okay.

NAR: Michael's been put onto a slow learning programme. The pressures at home were too much. Many in the school have similar stories.

Outside we may look okay but inside it's tearing me down, it's tearing me apart, cos every day I see my mom just struggling and struggling out there trying to make it for her and the rest of us, and knowing me, I have to put in part-time my work to help her out.

NAR: 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 black's here.

Allendale-Fairfax High School
We're not living in a perfect world, racism's there, nothing is gonna be... we're not living in a fair world, bad things are already decided, predicted. So it is racist in our professions, racism in the school system, it's racism everywhere.

NAR: Barack Obama is not breaking through to people like Barbara even though they're black. At the moment he's running neck and neck with Hillary Clinton in polls of African Americans.

BARBARA: He don't have no chance. Like I say, we women stepping up to the plate now and you know I think we can make a difference no matter we black or white, a lot of women can make a difference now, so he'd better look out cos Miss Hillary's coming.

NAR: Unlike Obama, Hillary Clinton doesn't have to worry about looking too black, and crucially she's capitalising on the immense popularity of her husband who won a place in the hearts of African Americans.

Political Psychologist
Bill Clinton was such a popular figure among African Americans. People joked that he was their 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.

NAR: And does that help Hillary?

WESTON; It helps Hillary tremendously.

NAR: If Obama doesn't win key states like South Carolina in January his whole campaign, his vision for America, could collapse. Obama has 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?

WESTEN: It's taken 150 years for us to go from slavery to a black man having a real shot at running for 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.

NAR: Barack Obama is in overdrive trying to pull this off. His ideas resonate here because they're 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.

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

VINE: Hilary Andersson reporting. It's already one of the most interesting elections in years. If the Democrats win, a black man might become president or a woman - both firsts for America. Definitely worth watching.

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