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Mike Tharp: Ignoring the third rail

Mike Tharp
Mike Tharp

The third rail of American politics.

That's what many people call race in this country.

"Third rail" refers to the electric power source that runs between the tracks for big-city trains and subways -- touch it and you get shocked. Sometimes you die.

Barack Obama's election casts race back onto center stage in American society, culture and politics. Most have referred to him as our first black president (or, for those endowed with political correctness, African-American).

I prefer Tiger Woods' description. The best golfer in the world seldom comments on issues other than his driving or putting. But after Obama was elected, Woods said he was happy that "a multiracial" candidate had won. Woods, of course, is half black (father) and half Thai (mother). Obama's father was black, his mother white.

And, to quote Forrest Gump, that's all I have to say about that.

Sadly, it won't be the last a lot of folks have to say about it.

I'd much prefer, while acknowledging the unprecedented news that a white male no longer will live in the White House, that we just move on. That we judge Obama by the content of his character, not the color of his skin. By what he does, not how he looks.

Viewing Obama through the prism of race will come from all points of the spectrum. It's already started. I got an angry voicemail about the cartoon on our Monday Perspective page. By cartoonist Jimmy Margulies, it showed the president-elect holding the chain of a mean-looking dog, both standing outside the office of newly appointed chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. (Emanuel is known for his volcanic temper.) Obama, holding a book titled "Pit Bull Training," says, "I promised my girls a puppy in the White House."

The female caller was upset at what she saw as "racism" in the cartoon.

Call me dumb. Call me numb. Call me whatever you like. I saw and see nothing racist in that cartoon. Nothing.

But she did. And millions of other Americans are primed to blame any criticism of Obama on racism.

From the other side -- let's call it the Bubba Side, since I've got a lot of hillbilly friends -- the outright racist "jokes" are already flying.

I got one in my e-mail this morning showing the presidential limousine tricked out with "dubs," flashy wire-wheeled hubcaps favored by hip-hop culture. A columnist (white) in Tennessee penned an "Ode to President Obama" based on the theme music of the '70s show, "The Jeffersons." It began, "Well, we're movin' on up .... To a deee-luxe pimp pad ..." (His editor apologized after it offended many readers.)

I blogged last week on our Web site that I agree with a good friend of mine, another editor, that the press will treat Obama in ways different from any of his predecessors -- solely out of fear of being branded racists. They'll go light on him. Most of the White House press corps probably voted for him anyway, plus there's always the traditional presidential honeymoon.

But if I was covering the president, I'd cover him the same way the Sun-Star covers Dee Tatum, the county CEO. He happens to be black, but we report on him as if his color were invisible. We report on what he does -- not his race. (I didn't know he was black for the first year I was here. It just never came up in the newsroom or our stories.)

I've been around long enough to understand that Obama will become a lightning rod for some of the worst negative charges and discharges we've ever seen.

His backers will filter his behavior and policies through their own racial radar, quick to blame critics' motives rather than their substance.

Opponents will loose what Yeats called "the blood-dimmed tide" and attack Obama based on his color and their perverted notions of what that involves.

Much better for all of us over the next four -- or eight -- years is what Merced's Miguel Flores wrote to the Sun-Star this week:

"To all the people who voted in this special election, we are all Americans. I voted for an American president, not an African-American president. There will never be unity if we continue to separate ourselves into different racial groups .... It is a special period in our history, but it is, after all, an American history."

My son Nao is multiracial. His mom's Japanese. When he was born in the early '80s in Japan, the Japanese word for people like him of mixed races was "haafu," meaning "half" of one race, half another.

By the time he was a magazine model in Tokyo at the turn of the century, the Japanese called people like him "doboru" -- doubles. They combined the best of both races.

Our new president is a double.

Cool. Let's celebrate that. Then let's move on and treat him as one of us. No more. No less.

Mike Tharp is executive editor of the Sun-Star. Reach him at (209) 385--2427 or