WASHINGTON — Is it foolish to think that a nation stained by centuries of slavery and racism is prepared to elect a black president? Rarely phrased so bluntly, that’s the central question posed by Barack Obama’s candidacy — especially for many African-American voters, whose doubts are informed by having seen many an oasis turn out to be a mirage.

Oprah Winfrey, as is her wont, cut to the heart of the matter. Campaigning on Obama’s behalf this weekend, she echoed the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in offering permission to believe.

“Dr. King dreamed the dream,” Winfrey told a predominately black crowd of 29,000 in Columbia, S.C. “But we don’t have to just dream the dream anymore. We get to vote that dream into reality.”

There are many in the African-American establishment who consider Winfrey’s exhortation a bit of starry-eyed nonsense. There are senior black Democrats who can barely hide their exasperation at Obama’s success, which they see as a mortal threat to a Democratic victory in November. Andrew Young is the latest to go public with his pique, saying in remarks reported during the weekend that he wants Obama to be president, but not until 2016. Even if Obama somehow managed to get elected this time, Young said, he couldn’t possibly be effective: “To put a brother in there by himself is to set him up for crucifixion.”

Others of comparable stature have griped privately to me that this whole Obama thing is madness, that he can’t possibly win, and that with a known quantity such as Hillary Clinton in the race, this is no time to go chasing rainbows. They point out that in the nation’s history we’ve had only two black governors — Douglas Wilder in Virginia and Deval Patrick in Massachusetts. If Americans, in all these years, have only elected two black men to run a state, are they really going to elect a black man to run the whole country?

It’s hard to dismiss such cold-eyed logic. Yet many people appear to believe, as Winfrey said, that “disappointment doesn’t have to be normal anymore.”

Even before Oprahpalooza stormed the country, there was considerable evidence that black voters had been moving toward Obama. The most recent Mason-Dixon poll, based on interviews conducted last week, showed Obama with a 16-point lead over Clinton among black Democrats in South Carolina — a complete reversal of where things stood in the summer, when Clinton was well ahead among African-Americans.

Just months ago, political reporters were asking whether Obama was “black enough,” as if there were some sort of chromatic-cultural gauge that could measure his blackness. Now they are asking whether the senator from Illinois has somehow “transcended race,” which I find an equally absurd question. Soon, if Obama continues his rise in the polls, we’ll all be asked to ponder whether he’s “too black” for America’s tastes.

But nobody’s paying attention to any of these alleged debates — at least for now. Whether or not America’s racism is indelible, only a small minority of Americans think of themselves as racist. I don’t know what will happen when Iowans go into their caucuses or when voters in New Hampshire and the other primary states go into their voting booths; if all the people who told pollsters they would vote for black candidates actually did so, Tom Bradley would have been elected governor of California. But I’m pretty confident that little or no overt racism is likely to show up in the polls. If I’m right, and Obama continues at or near the top of the field in overwhelmingly white states such as Iowa, then black voters who are so inclined will be more likely to take the leap of faith.

There’s an old conundrum within the African-American community: Push or be patient? Winfrey addressed it head-on.

“There are those who say it’s not his time, that he should wait his turn,” she said of Obama. Then she asked the crowd: “Think about where you’d be in your life if you’d waited when people told you to. I wouldn’t be where I am if I’d waited on the people who told me it can’t be.”

Obama is still a long way from the presidency, but anyone who follows politics knows that there is no guarantee that he’ll ever get this close again. No one can ask him not to try to seize the moment.

I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that the whole idea of America electing a black president still seems improbable to me. But no longer impossible.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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