LAS VEGAS — Sen. Barack Obama used a speech to black journalists yesterday to try to put to rest criticism that he is “not black enough.”
The Illinois Democrat and fundraising leader in the race for his party’s presidential nomination said his appearance is black and that his work as a civil rights lawyer, a community organizer in Chicago and a state senator make him much stronger on black issues than any other candidate.
Mr. Obama opened his remarks to the National Association of Black Journalists with a joke that he was intentionally a “little late” to prove his “blackness,” in keeping with an age-old stereotype that blacks are not concerned with being punctual.
During a question-and-answer session, Mr. Obama turned the tables on the journalists, asking them why they continue to pepper him with questions about his “blackness.”
“This is a troubling question, for it to be perpetrated though our [black] press, and we should ask ourselves why that is,” he told a capacity crowd of nearly 1,500 at the group’s 32nd annual convention.
Mr. Obama went on to say that blacks don’t want to get too excited about his prospects of winning the presidency because they don’t want to be disappointed if he loses.
“And my attitude is let’s try it,” he said. “Why defeat ourselves ahead of time and why say we can’t do something before we even attempt to do it?”
Mr. Obama’s chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, attended the event Thursday and was asked whether she could relate to and represent the issues important to blacks better than a black man.
Mrs. Clinton said she will have to work hard for the black vote, adding that she “didn’t deserve” their votes or anyone else’s without earning them first.
Mr. Obama also said he is not taking the black vote for granted, but argued he could do more than anyone else to change politics and race relations if he is president.
“The day I’m inaugurated the racial dynamics of this country changes immediately, with Michelle as the first lady and images of me playing with Sasha on the White House lawn,” Mr. Obama said, referring to his wife and one of his daughters. “Those images change how America looks; it changes how white children think about black children and it changes how black children think about black children.”
Mr. Obama challenged Mrs. Clinton directly on her assertion that her experience alone better qualifies her to be president.
“Being experienced is not enough,” he said. “The question is what have you learned from your experiences, because everyone here knows a whole bunch of 50- and 60-year-olds who have a lot of experience but not much judgment.”
As examples, he pointed to former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney — both of whom have served in multiple administrations — saying neither could predict that invading Iraq would lead to a war with no end in sight.
He then chastised his Democratic rivals, specifically Mrs. Clinton, Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, saying they have years of political experience among them, but still voted to authorize the war.
Mr. Obama also addressed the issue of illegal aliens, saying he supports tightening the borders in part because the influx of illegals depresses wages for unskilled or low-skilled black workers.
“We make a mistake in pitting immigrant workers and Latino workers trying to raise and support their families with African-American families trying to do the same thing, when what we should be doing is trying to raise the wages for all those people,” Mr. Obama said.
He added that immigrant workers should come out of the shadows and be documented, learn English and get in the back of the line for citizenship behind those who came into the country legally.