WASHINGTON — Are white Americans really, truly prepared to elect an African-American president? Seriously, is a nation with such a long and shameful history of brutal slavery, Jim Crow segregation and persistent racism actually going to put a black man in the White House?

One of Barack Obama’s principal tasks in the coming months may be convincing African-American voters that this whole phenomenon — a black candidate with a well-financed campaign, proven crossover appeal and a real chance to win — isn’t just another cruel illusion.

I hear from African-Americans who are excited about Obama’s candidacy but who suspect that somehow, when push comes to shove, “they” won’t let him win. It’s unclear who “they” might be — white voters, the “power structure,” the alignment of the stars — and it’s unclear how “they” are going to thwart Obama’s ambition. The point is that, somehow, he’ll be denied.

This anecdotal evidence finds some empirical support in the polls, although it’s far from definitive. A recent CNN poll of Democrats in South Carolina — a crucial, early primary state where African-Americans will cast about half the Democratic vote — showed Hillary Clinton leading Obama by a bigger margin among blacks than among whites. And while white respondents thought Clinton had only a slightly better chance of winning the 2008 general election than Obama, blacks who were polled thought Clinton was fully twice as likely to beat a generic Republican opponent next November.

The CNN poll’s sample of black voters was so small, and its margin of error so great, that it’s impossible to draw firm conclusions. For that matter, it would be a mistake to take any of these early polls too seriously. But isn’t Obama the least bit concerned that black voters might succumb to a kind of historical fatalism about how race works in America?

“What I see is a lot of press fascination with a black candidate who does not yet have 100 percent of the African-American vote,” Obama said Monday in a telephone interview. “It’s fascinating to me that people would expect that somehow I would be getting unanimous black support at this stage of the campaign, when probably only about 50 percent of black voters know much about me at all.”

Obama pointed out that “black folks have known the Clintons for a long time.” He also noted that when he ran for the U.S. Senate, his poll numbers among African-Americans started low but later went stratospheric as voters got to know him.

Still, the Obama campaign recognizes the importance of South Carolina as the first primary state with a substantial African-American electorate. A win there could resonate in other states where the black vote will be a key factor in the Democratic primary. A bad loss in South Carolina would resonate, too — not in a good way, from Obama’s point of view.

Last week, the Obama campaign began running a new radio ad on 36 black-oriented radio stations throughout South Carolina. Its two themes: “We have more work to do” and “It’s Barack Obama time.”

Asked about fatalism or resignation among black voters, Obama said, “I’m sure there’s some of that going on. The way to solve that problem is to win.”

That I reached Obama in the midst of a campaign swing through Iowa was no accident. “If I do well in Iowa, and if I do well in New Hampshire … then by the time we get to South Carolina I think we will have dispelled the notion that somehow whites won’t vote for African-Americans.”

The dispelling of notions seems to be a specialty of Obama’s — or maybe it’s just his fate in life. Last week, in his fight with Clinton over whether a president should meet with foreign leaders who are adversaries in addition to those who are friends, Obama dispelled the questionable notion that a politician who learned his craft in rough-and-tumble Chicago, where Marquess of Queensberry rules do not apply, somehow had failed to learn how to take or deliver a punch.

“That was a fun debate … an important, substantive debate,” he told me, before sticking in another jab about how “experience means reciting the conventional wisdom in Washington … that got us into the Iraq war.”

Obama had spent weeks dispelling the notion, held by some in the national media, that somehow he isn’t “black enough.” He still gets asked that question, but by now he has mostly put the question of his racial identity to rest. As he knew all along, he’s black.

Now he has to dispel the notion that because he’s black, somehow “they” will slap him down.

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

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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