OBAMA AND RACE, PART 2,354.

OBAMA AND RACE, PART 2,354. In Salon today, Michael Scherer has an article, cleverly titled "Hillary Is From Mars, Obama Is From Venus," arguing that Barack Obama is the girl candidate -- touchy-feely, empathetic, cranking up the Indigo Girls; while Hillary Clinton is the boy candidate -- direct, strong, presumably pumping up the Metallica in between Celine Dion tunes. Obama and Clinton "are fighting for undecided female voters who are attracted by Obama's feminine appeal, but still drawn to the macho performance of the only woman to ever have a real shot at the Oval Office," Scherer writes. "May the best woman win."

In recent days I've written a lot about the question of gender roles and the campaign (here, here, and here). So this certainly grabbed my attention. And it made me wonder: does the fact that Barack Obama is black insulate him from attacks on his masculinity?

The topic of Obama's race is already the most intricately examined cultural factor of this election, far more so than Hillary Clinton's gender. Is he too black? Is he not black enough? Is he the kind of black person who makes white people feel comfortable? What does his blackness say about us?

So we can add this one to the mix. The fact is that, your occasional Urkel notwithstanding, for better or worse (and more often than not it's worse), in our culture we associate black men with a whole series of stereotypically masculine traits, like athleticism, physical strength... I'm just going to stop there.

This isn't to say, of course, that Republicans won't try to argue that Obama is effeminate in the same way they're doing to John Edwards. That's what they do. (And some are trying already -- super-macho he-man Tucker Carlson has tagged Obama as a "wimpy" and "kind of a wuss.") But I suspect that these kind of attacks may just fall flat because they violate the associations so many people have embedded in their brains.

This isn't the only racial stereotype that could work to Obama's advantage. Time magazine has a new poll showing that voters perceive Obama to be the most religious of the Democratic candidates, despite the fact that in truth that honor probably belongs to Hillary Clinton. As Amy Sullivan wrote in the accompanying article, "Democrats have long outsourced religion to their African-American members, showing up in black churches the weekend before elections to clap along to gospel tunes, and treating black ministers as cuddly social justice mascots. As a result, black politicians rarely need to prove their religiosity -- they're given the benefit of the doubt."

The issue of Obama's race seems to grow more complex all the time. It's a good indication of his political acumen and the time he's spent thinking about his political identity that Obama has handled all these questions deftly, without letting them do any political damage to him (so far).

--Paul Waldman

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