SECRETARY OF STATE Condoleezza Rice gave an interview to the Associated Press last week, but as the State Department's transcript of the meeting reveals, she didn't say anything terribly newsworthy. AP had to lead with something, though, so it played up the racial angle, headlining the story "Rice: US ready for black president."
Asked whether "America is ready to vote for and support a black president," the second consecutive black Americanto head the Department of State promptly answered, "Yeah. I think so." She noted that while Americans may not be perfectly blind to color -- "You know, when a person walks into a room, race is evident" -- by and large "we have become capableof looking past color to see capability and to see merit and to overcome stereotypes . . . and that's what people look for, I think, when they are looking for a president."
She added that no longer do the racist values of an earlier age shape our political culture. "I think we've overcome," Rice said. "Most Americans, a great majority of Americans, have overcome that.
"So, yes, I think a black person can be elected president."
Big news? Not even close.
After all, the talk of the political world these days is Barack Obama, the biracial first-term Illinois senator who has become the hottest ticket in the 2008 Democratic presidential road show. Obama's first-ever trip to New Hampshire earlier this month drew enthusiastic crowds, selling out halls in Manchester and Portsmouth and fueling lavish media coverage. "We originally scheduled the Rolling Stones," the state's Democratic governor, John Lynch, said of the Manchester event, "but we canceled them when we figured out that Senator Obama would sell more tickets."
Two weeks later, the Concord Monitor is reporting that if the Democratic primary were held today, Obama would be in a dead heat with New York Senator Hillary Clinton, the supposed Democratic front-runner. The same poll shows Obama doing better than either Clinton or former senator John Edwards, the Democrats' 2004 vice-presidential candidate, in hypothetical match-ups against leading Republicans . Obama mania shows up in the latest Iowa polling, too.
With more than a year to go before the presidential primaries begin, these polls aren't worth much as political auguries. But they speak volumes about the comfort level of Americans at the prospect of a black nominee.
Newsweek's latest opinion survey asked a national sample of voters the same question AP asked Rice: "Do you think America is ready to elect an African-American president?" A solid majority -- 56 percent -- said yes; only 30 percent said no. But when voters were asked whether they personally would vote for a qualified black candidate nominated by their party, the positive response was beyond overwhelming: 93 percent.
None of this is new, and it didn't begin with Obama. In 1995, Colin Powell was at or near the top of presidential preference polls; at his book-signings, admirers by the hundreds stood in line for his autograph. Though he eventually declined to run, it was widely believed that he would be a formidable candidate for the White House.
When Rice describes America as "capable of looking past color," she speaks nothing but the plain truth. Mainstream Americans -- unlike much of the media, the activist left, and the diversity industry -- is not hung up on race. They don't want the law to discriminate for or against anyone on the basis of skin color, they don't like it when schoolchildren are pushed around like pawns on a racial chessboard, and they don't buy the libel that black Americans can't succeed because white Americans keep them down.
As a black child in pre-civil rights Birmingham, Rice witnessed racism up close. Her friend Denise McNair was one of the four black girls murdered when the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed in 1963. Rice never had a white classmate until her family moved to Denver in 1968.
"Look at my generation," she told Ebony last year. "We started in segregation, all of us. And you look at where people in my generation are. We've broken ceilings as CEOs and as presidents of universities and secretaries of state. It shows how change can happen, and how fast it can happen. . . . America is an awfully good place to be a minority."
In the space of just a few decades -- a blink of history's eye -- racial bigotry became intolerable to most Americans. Is America ready for a black president? The idea would once have been unthinkable. Today it is almost unremarkable.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
-- ## --
Want to read more Jeff Jacoby? Sign up for "Arguable," his free weekly email newsletter.