Whatever the outcome of the Democrat presidential nomination, we all owe Barack Obama a favor. We owe it to him in common with the favor that we owe Colin Powell and Condi Rice. Whether he ever winds up as Chief Justice, we all owe Clarence Thomas the same favor.
Nothing of those four had all that much in common. Powell served both Democrat and Republican administrations and he was marked as someone moderate or neutral on political issues. Rice has been much more a Republican advocate, and few conservatives would mind having her at the top or bottom of the presidential ticket. Obama has been a doctrinaire Leftist, deviating not at all from the standard Leftist explanation for the world and not at all from the Democrat Party. Thomas has been a stalwart conservative who has stood up to all the raging storms of hateful Leftism.
All have been either mentioned for or sought after the presidency or been nominated to very high office. That, alone, places them together: That, and the fact that all four were black. But the high perch each has reached in national political consciousness is encouraging because none of the four has reached that perch by the simple fact of being black.
Powell rose through the military by merit. Rice rose through academia by merit (she is also an accomplished cellist and figure skater.) Obama, like Thomas, was an attorney and the former headed off into politics, winning elections in a predominately white state, while the latter won appointment to the federal bench, leading up to the Supreme Court, over the snarls of Leftists.
Listening to Barack Obama, Colin Powell, Condi Rice or Clarence Thomas speak is a heady reminder of just how far black America has come. All four of these gifted speakers and talented communicators have mastered the spoken word and the written word in their native tongue, English. One of the first things that Irish, German, Jewish and Italian immigrant children learned was proficiency in English. These children of immigrants and their parents understood that mastery of English was the single most important factor in economic, social and cultural success in America.
These European immigrants had advantages over other immigrants. The Irish were exposed to English as the language of administration. German and Yiddish are so closely related to common English that much does not require translation. Italian is a Romantic language which is also inexorably connected to English. Spanish is also purely Romantic, which makes it comparatively easy for Hispanics to learn English.
Other immigrants - Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean - have faced a much taller climb. Their spoken and written languages have nothing to do with a root language of English like German or Latin. English is as alien to these immigrants as Martian would be, and yet they have learned an impeccable command of English in just a generation or two.
Pointedly, this has not been at the cost of ethnic identity. Italians often still retain the Italian language, although at home. Jews often retain a smattering of Yiddish and an ability to read Hebrew. Oriental immigrants also often keep much knowledge of their native language and symbols. All enrich America by being fully American and then more than American.
Black Americans, however, have maintained a difficulty in English which proves a profound handicap upon their progress. This is in spite of the fact that blacks have been in America, speaking English for more than two centuries. The contrast between blacks and immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, where English is also the language of administration, is profound. Unexposed to the American nuances of English, an immigrant from Bombay or Calcutta still has an impressive, often superior, command of the King's English. Consequently the Indian immigrant can communicate very well in writing and also well, getting past the accent, in spoken English.
There has never been any reason why black Americans should not have an excellent command of English. Anyone who has read Frederick Douglass can see that he was one of the most outstanding American writers of the Nineteenth Century. Anyone today who reads a book by Thomas Sowell or hears a speech by Alan Keyes cannot believe for an instant that there is any insurmountable obstacle to blacks reaching the pinnacle of skill in English.
It is perhaps a happy coincidence that Thomas, Rice, Powell and Obama reach across our political and ideological spectrum. Each is a powerful and positive role model for black Americans. When more young blacks begin to speak like Obama, America will be a happier land.