- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 18, 2004

In the midst of the media tumult about the rudiments of the Illinois U.S. Senate race between State Sen. Barack Obama and Alan Keyes, the historic ramifications of their contest has seemingly been ignored.

The race between Mr. Keyes and Mr. Obama marks the first time two African-Americans have faced off in an election for the U.S. Senate, with the winner to become only the fifth African-American elected to the Senate.

But beyond the historic ramifications of their participation in this election, this campaign makes a much more profound statement about a more contemporary African-American political reality. The Keyes-Obama race debunks the myth African-American political thought and philosophy is monolithic— a myth that has shaped the parties’ approach to African-Americans for decades.

Regardless what one thinks of the the political philosophies of either candidate, all must agree there is a difference of opinion between Mr. Keyes and Mr. Obama. Political pundits and others have cited these diametric differences, but they have sought to marginalize Mr. Keyes’ political philosophy and portray him as an ultraconservative who seeks to obstruct someone whose message resonates among all African-Americans in Illinois.

Such a portrayal is an example of the political climate surrounding the Keyes-Obama Senate contest and that it seeks to change in November, regardless of the final outcome.

The prevailing view is of African-Americans as liberal Democrats who couldn’t possibly subscribe to any conservative or conservative-connected ideals or political perspectives. This shortsighted perspective is a distant cousin to views that once did not recognize the diversity among African-Americans and subjected all African-Americans to derogatory stereotypes. This was evident in statements such as “they all look alike.”

Granted, a glance at our recent voting patterns may suggest an affinity between African-Americans and Democratic Party ideals, which would be used to support the theory Mr. Keyes’ perspective does not reflect that of other African Americans.

However, this is not the view of most African-American registered voters and simply reflects our historically prevalent cyclical voting pattern.

Polls by Black America’s Political Action Committee (BAMPAC) show support among African-American registered voters for ideas tabbed as conservative. African-Americans vehemently oppose partial-birth abortions and the legalization of same-sex “marriages” and the comparison of the homosexual rights movement to the civil rights movement.

Conversely, there is support among African-Americans for so-called conservative measures such charter schools, restrictions on the availability to minors of music with explicit lyrics, and the option of investing part of one’s Social Security benefits.

Further, while most African-Americans consider themselves political moderates, the poll found the next largest identification group to be conservatives.

Another sign of change is growing frustration among African Americans with the Democratic Party. In BAMPAC’s most recent poll this summer, a majority of African-American registered voters who were surveyed felt the Democratic Party has taken them for granted. At the same time, younger African-American voters have been increasingly self-identifying as independents.

In light of these facts, the Keyes-Obama Senate race should be seen in a different context than that presented by the media and other so-called experts. It is not, as the media and others suggest, a race between a candidate who reflects African- American public opinion and a conservative outsider.

This campaign is a historic race between two African-American candidates whose differences of opinion and political perspective mirrors the diversity of opinion and political perspective among African-Americans.

When the candidates take the stage in debates, America will hear a diversity of political perspective among African- Americans that is similar to the diversity of political opinion among all Americans and the cornerstone of our democracy.

The historic importance of the Keyes-Obama U.S. Senate race is not limited to announcing the victor Nov. 2. This election can and should be noted as a turning point in how the larger nation views African-American participation in our democracy.

Alvin Williams is president of BAMPAC, Black America’s Political Action Committee.

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