(Mr. Connerly is a former University of California Regent, former chairman of Proposition 209, and currently chairman of the American Civil Rights Institute. He is nationally known for his commitment to end the use of race preferences in government employment, contracting, and education.)

Obama and Dr. Livingston

One of my professors in college – Dr. John (“Jack”) Livingston – was actively involved in the “Civil Rights Movement” of the 1960s, the rallying cry of which was “We Shall Overcome.” Once, I asked of him: “How will we know when we have ‘overcome?’”

Dr. Livingston responded that three conditions would determine when America would “overcome” its problem of prejudice and racism against black people: when white men no longer object to their daughters marrying a black man; when a white man or woman can honestly say that he or she would be willing to walk in the shoes of any black person; and when Americans evidence a willingness to elect a black individual as their president. Then, said Professor Livingston, we will have overcome the scourge of race.

Over the years, I have recalled Dr. Livingston’s benchmarks for determining whether life is improving in America for black people and have found these “rules of thumb” to be useful as a way of measuring America’s progress in getting beyond “race.” I’ve been especially recalling my conversation with Jack Livingston as Senator Barack Obama (D-Illinois) has been inching toward formally announcing his candidacy for president of the United States.

With regard to the first test, it isn’t so much whether a white dad objects to his daughter marrying a black man, but how long does it take for him to become comfortable with the idea after he is told, “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” Although that is often the case, there are a number of reasons why a father might not want his daughter to marry “outside her race” that might not, necessarily, be a reflection of racism against blacks. A considerable number of black women resent interracial dating and interracial marriages, for example, because such practices limit their options in the social marketplace, in their opinion. They are not necessarily prejudiced against non-black women. Nonetheless, it is clear that most Americans, including white fathers, have long moved past objecting to their daughters marrying a black guy. I suspect that many white fathers would prefer that their daughter marry a black man than another woman.

As he confronted the issue of discrimination against black people, President John F. Kennedy was reported to have asked one of his aides, “Would you be willing take the place of any black person in America?” In that era, the question need not be answered, because it was inconceivable that any white man or woman would want to endure the prejudice, discrimination and humiliations that inevitably resulted from being black. No matter how successful a black might be, he or she could not escape the reality of race in America – and that reality was a presumption of inferiority. Even the most successful black was consigned to a lower social order than the least successful white. More than 40 years later, the same cannot be said to be true.

It is not hard to imagine a considerable number of whites who would not mind trading places with Obama, Halle Berry, Oprah Winfrey, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Tiger Woods and an endless list of other individuals identified as or perceived to be “black” – or partially so. In the case of Oprah Winfrey, $1.5 billion is enough to cause one to be willing to endure a whole lot of prejudice. Little boys wearing their “I want to be like Mike” tee shirts as a tribute to Michael Jordan is another vivid example of the waning influence of race in our nation.

Finally, there is the matter of whether the American people are ready to support a black for president. Frankly, we reached that point when Colin Powell flirted with declaring his candidacy for the 2000 presidential election. Barack Obama is Colin Powell eight years later. In 2000, the nation was ready to anoint Powell with little knowledge of his beliefs. Today, it is prepared to do the same with regard to Obama. This fact tells us a lot about the dying influence of race in America.

As it was with Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Shirley Chisholm and Carol Moseley Braun – all of whom ran unsuccessfully for president – it is not so much whether America is ready to elect a president who is black – but which black? Personally, I would vote for none of the above, nor would I have cast my vote for Powell and it is not likely, based on what little I know about his positions thus far, that Senator Obama will be the recipient of my hanging chad. Just as I will not refuse to vote for someone I would consider best for my nation because of his or her skin color, so will I not vote for someone based on his or her skin color.

I know that there will be those who will claim that “we are not there, yet,” should Obama falter and not be elected president. They will say that our nation is still “racist.” However, Dr. Livingston would not have agreed with that conclusion. For him, it was only important that a black be considered a “serious” candidate, just like any other candidate, not that he or she ultimately prevail in order for the American people to show their commitment to equality. By that yardstick, we are “there,” because it is unlikely that a non-black candidate with so little experience and having revealed so little about his positions would be taken as seriously as is Obama.

Although he didn’t live to witness it, I have no doubt that Dr. Livingston would have been proud to experience his beloved America “overcoming” as he had hoped and predicted. May he rest in peace!