WASHINGTON -- With the Rev. Al Sharpton leading calls Monday for radio host Don Imus to be fired over racially insensitive remarks, Senator Barack Obama's presidential campaign avoided the controversy throughout the day. Not until Monday evening, five days after Imus's comments were uttered and hours after CBS Radio and MSNBC announced a two-week suspension for the radio host, did Obama weigh in, saying in a statement: "The comments of Don Imus were divisive, hurtful, and offensive to Americans of all backgrounds." Obama did not address whether he thought Imus should be taken off the air.
The episode is the first test of how Obama -- who is of mixed-race background -- is handling the contentious issue of race in his presidential campaign. Even as polls have shown other Democrats attracting a large share of the black vote, Obama has steered clear of the kind of activism symbolized by Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who were both highly visible in the Imus episode but whose aggressiveness on race issues has alienated some white voters in the past.
But with Obama battling other Democrats -- most notably Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York -- for the support of black voters, the candidate's reticence on the Imus issue set off alarms yesterday among some black activists who are anxious to see him more forcefully push for racial justice.
Melissa Harris Lacewell, a professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University, said Obama missed an opportunity to prove himself to blacks and white liberals who would have wanted Obama take the lead in denouncing Imus.
"This was so easy, and his unwillingness to touch it tells me this is going to be his third rail, and race never goes away in politics," Harris Lacewell said. "Black people want to love Barack. They're doing everything they can to love Barack. We want to believe that Barack is better than this. But they will turn on him."
The Obama campaign declined to comment yesterday on its handling of the issue. One adviser pointed out, however, that Obama issued a public comment before the other major Democratic candidates -- including Clinton and former senator John Edwards of North Carolina.
Obama represents a break with the presidential candidacies of forebears such as Sharpton, a Democratic presidential candidate in 2004, and Jackson, who ran in 1984 and 1988.
Obama is the son of a white mother and a black father from Kenya, and grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia. He is part of a generation too young to be shaped directly by the civil rights movement; he was 6 years old when Martin Luther King Jr. was slain in 1968.
Obama told CBS's "60 Minutes" earlier this year that he is rooted in the African-American community, but not defined by it.
In a closely watched speech last month in Selma, Ala., Obama declared that he was part of the "Joshua generation" -- likening himself to the Biblical successor to Moses who led the Jewish people into the promised land -- and thus located himself in the post-liberation generation.
While acknowledging debts to civil rights pioneers, Obama has made clear that he represents a different kind of politics, rooted deeply in coalition-building, not anger and outrage.
"He's cut from a different cloth, and that doesn't make him less black," said Joyce Ferriabough, a Boston-based Democratic consultant who is African-American. "His way of doing things is a lot more measured, less fiery, but that doesn't make him less effective. He needs to be the candidate of the people, and the people aren't just black."
Ron Walters, a former top campaign aide to Jackson and now a politics professor at the University of Maryland, said that if Obama took on a issue like Imus's comments, he could undercut his appeal to the broad electorate.
"There are people that are just waiting for him to jump out there in the crosshairs and be a race leader," Walters said. If Obama spoke out, "that would put him in a different role: a race leader. And that would pull back the covers for those who don't see race when they look at Barack Obama."
Yet Obama's promise to take up the mantle of past civil rights activists and his showing in the polls have not assuaged the concerns of some black leaders, including Sharpton, that Obama isn't sufficiently committed to the causes they hold dear. With Clinton also earning significant black support and her husband, the former president, still widely popular among black voters, those qualms among prominent blacks could have electoral consequences for Obama.
Sharpton has repeatedly said that Obama did not learn the lessons of the civil rights movement, including the value of bold stands and dramatic action.
"I agree with him that we are part of the Joshua generation, but Joshua came from the ranks of Moses to continue the struggle and not to abandon the struggle," Sharpton told the Washington Times last month. "Being a part of the Joshua generation is based on your work and not your age."
Though Jackson lined up behind Obama two weeks ago, Sharpton has pointedly refused to endorse Obama, sparking speculation that he will support Clinton -- his home-state senator -- instead. Sharpton has said he will not endorse any candidate until hearing more about their views on civil rights and other issues at his National Action Network convention next week in New York City.
Michael Eric Dyson, a University of Pennsylvania professor and author, said he supports Obama's campaign but questions why he did not speak up more forcefully about Imus. He added that the other presidential candidates had the same responsibility.
"Here's the point: Paying attention to the issues of race is an American concern," he said. "It looks as if he's being so careful and cautious not to ruffle the feathers of the mainstream that he may inadvertently raise the hackles of the black majority."
Harris Lacewell, the Princeton professor, said Obama's willingness to cede the spotlight to Sharpton on the Imus issue could leave such veteran activists more powerful in the black community -- and therefore tougher to win over.
Ferriabough, the Democratic consultant, said Obama's campaign is tied to the candidate's personal energy and charisma, rather than those who are declaring their support for him.
"Endorsements won't make or break this candidate," said Ferriabough, who said she has not committed to supporting any candidate but is leaning toward Obama.
"Obama doesn't need to go on the soapbox," Ferriabough said. "Others are doing it, led by Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. He's nipping at Hillary, so he's playing for real."
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