Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

Thinking (the once unthinkable) About Obama

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February 7, 2007


 c.2007 Newhouse News Service


 (UNDATED) On Aug. 4, 1964, the day Barack Obama turned 3, FBI agents unearthed the bodies of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman near the town of Philadelphia, Miss. Schwerner’s last words to the Klansman who killed him were, “I understand how you feel, sir.”

    Those were dark and unforgiving times. The color line was drawn hard and fast. The country was 88 percent white and 10 percent black. Hispanics, who now outnumber African-Americans, did not exist as a group. The term had yet to be coined. The marriage that produced Obama –  between a black man and a white woman – was illegal in more than half the states. Even Martin Luther King Jr., while opposing those anti-miscegenation laws, would reassure audiences that “The Negro wants to be the white man’s brother, not his brother-in-law,” a clever line that no doubt drew both laughter and relief.

    Barely half of all Americans, according to Gallup, then would have considered voting for a black candidate for president. The idea that Barack Obama might one day grow up to occupy the White House was unthinkable.

    It’s now thinkable.

    After back-to-back black secretaries of state and head-to-head black coaches at Super Bowl XLI, Americans this Black History Month are contemplating the ultimate black first _ an African-American president.

    The candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., has ignited a free-for-all discussion about race –  in print, online, on the airwaves and in casual conversations, heated arguments and our innermost musings – that may prove the most probing and consequential in a generation or more. Pull any thread, tracing the loops in its logic, and strand by strand, each of us can unravel the knots of race in our own thinking:

    – Why does Obama identify as black, and what do some critics mean when they say he isn’t?

   – Why is it those in the deepest swoon for Obama, and the most optimistic that he could actually get elected, are white?

  – Would the election of a black president advance the cause of racial justice, or obscure it?

  – And if a black candidate as attractive as Obama can’t make it, what then?

    Obama has been called a racial Rorschach test. People see what they will in him, and reveal themselves. When another presidential contender, Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., described him as “the first sort of mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” he provided a peek into what seemed the patronizing mind-set of a white liberal who 40 years ago might have bragged, “Some of my best friends are Negroes.”

    But perhaps Biden was getting at something deeper, more truly new, about Obama: his fluency across racial lines.

    Obama was born in Hawaii, the son of a black foreign student from Kenya,  who would leave Obama’s life when the boy was 2, and a white woman from Kansas. The couple met as students at the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii. When his mother later married an Indonesian man, the family moved to Jakarta, where Obama lived a few years. At 10, he returned to Hawaii to live with his mother’s parents, attending the top-flight, private Punahou School. Along the way, he developed a strong black identity.

    It is an unusual story. But over the course of his lifetime, as America has changed, Obama has gone from being an odd man out in the racial order to a multicultural everyman uniquely comfortable in the nation America is becoming.

    “While Sen. Obama is a person of color, he is also at the same time an incredibly unifying figure,” said Geoffrey Garin, a leading Democratic pollster. “I think there are lots of Americans, including a lot of white Americans, who can see themselves somewhere in the Obama story.”

    “I learned to slip back and forth between my black and white worlds, understanding that each possessed its own language and customs and structures of meaning, convinced that with a bit of translation on my part the two worlds would eventually cohere,” Obama wrote in his 1995 book, “Dreams From My Father.”

    “Cohere.” Join together. Even now there is lingering tension between black and white Americans, built on a smoldering slag heap of accumulated hurt, resentment, guilt, shame and mutual suspicion. Whites especially have created a calloused etiquette of race that prizes comity over candor.

    Now comes Obama to translate. He is the go-between, the honest broker, fully conversant with both worlds, who can deliver Michael Schwerner’s last words _ “I understand how you feel” _ with a sincerity that falls softly on the ear.

    “You guys don’t have much of a memory of a politics that transcends and brings people together,” Obama told thousands of young people thronged in the atrium of the student center at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., on Feb. 2.

    Stephanie Jackson, 18, from Chesapeake, Va., who is black, saw her church deacon in Obama. To her friend Megan Fowler, a 20-year-old freshman from the Memphis suburb of Collierville, Tenn., he “could be a really good friend’s father.” Flushed with excitement, Fowler, who is white, was cell-phoning friends everywhere to brag that she had just seen Obama. Only her grandmother was better off not hearing of her ardor for an African-American Democrat. “She might roll over and die,” Fowler said.

    “The country that I live in as a black man is so far different from the country that I was born into 75 years ago, it’s just astonishing,” said Roger Wilkins, a professor of history and American culture at George Mason, who has lived the whirlwind of civil rights history.

    The other night, Wilkins said, he and his wife walked into a party where they were the only black guests, and the place was aglow with Obama fever: “There are a lot of white people who want to get this behind us _ `Yeah, dammit, we’ve hoisted our nation on this petard for long enough and we ought to just once and for all get rid of our problem of racism and move on.’ For those people, Obama is a wonderful answer.”

    Stephen Steinberg, a sociologist of race at Queens College, calls it “the magic of Obama,” his appeal to those for whom a vote will be “an act of exorcism from the sin of racism _ pull the lever and, poof, it’s gone.”

    “His being black is essential to his magic,” Steinberg said.

    Which raises this: How black is Obama, who has no slave ancestry? (The closest he comes to the defining trauma of the African-American experience is a tenuous, distant relationship on his mother’s side with Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy.)

    At first the question seems indecent. Obama looks black. He identifies as black. His father was black. For most of American history, the law would have defined him as black. And is anyone asking who’s whiter, Hillary Clinton or John Edwards?

    Such iconoclastic black writers as Debra J. Dickerson and Stanley Crouch have made the point that Obama is different in order to clarify exactly what is going on here. As Dickerson wrote in January on, “Not descended from West African slaves brought to America, (Obama) steps into the benefits of black progress (like Harvard Law School) without having borne any of the burden, and he gives the white folks plausible deniability of their unwillingness to embrace blacks in public life.”

    This is no mere curiosity. Only a small percentage of black students at Harvard and other elite schools are descended from slaves, and Colin Powell, the last great black hope with broad white appeal, was the son of Jamaican immigrants. As Powell told The New Yorker in 1995, “I ain’t that black.”

    Obama, for his part, sank roots in Chicago‘s South Side _ home turf of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and Minister Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam. His wife, Michelle, grew up on the South Side, where they live with their two daughters in the upscale, integrated neighborhood of Kenwood. They attend Trinity United Church of Christ, with its motto, “Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian,” and its commitment to a “Black Value System” that includes tithing in support of “Black Institutions” and “allegiance to all Black leadership who espouse and embrace the Black Value System.”

    That not everyone in black Chicago has pledged allegiance to Obama infuriates Roland S. Martin, executive editor of the black daily, the Chicago Defender. In a January editorial, he argued that black leaders ought to rally around an African-American candidate for president “who actually has a shot at winning.”

    “But, no!” Martin wrote. “We have folks playing coy, whispering behind the scenes, questioning his blackness, and in some cases, complete silence. This is nothing more than black-on-black hate at its best.”

    Still, for Eddie Read, who chairs Chicago‘s Black Independent Political Organization, what matters is not shared skin color or hair texture, but a shared agenda to help the black poor and working class.

    “I would not embrace Obama because I know that nothing’s going to happen out of it. He doesn’t belong to us,” Read said.

    Better to elect a white liberal, who has much the same agenda as Obama but can’t use race loyalty to deflect criticism.

    Case in point: Read worked hard to elect Roland Burris, who is black, when he sought the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2002. Burris lost to Rod Blagojevich, who was elected and who Read said has turned out to be “blacker than Bill Clinton” in his affinity for the community. Meanwhile, if Burris had been elected and didn’t deliver, “we would have been compromised in our ability to kick his ass.”

    Modern black politics grew out of a protest movement. Black rage and righteous indignation found allies in white guilt and fear.

    But in “The Audacity of Hope,” published last year, Obama concludes that both white guilt and black anger are largely spent. He writes that when he meets people they sometimes quote back to him a line from his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention: “There is not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America _ there’s the United States of America.”

    “I think this man is the new face of race in the United States,” said Charles Gallagher, a sociologist at Georgia State University who studies the way white people think about race. In his colorblind rhetoric and swift success, Gallagher said, Obama is “confirmation to white Americans that racism is a thing of the past.”

    Yet Ward Connerly, the black businessman from California who has crusaded against racial and gender preferences, warns that to succeed, Obama must remain the “ecumenical, melting-pot candidate who happens to be black” and never the “black candidate.”

    “White America really wants to give it up when it comes to race,” Connerly said. “They want to get beyond it and they thought they heard a black candidate who understands that.”

    Obama recalls in “Dreams From My Father” that in college, he “stumbled upon one of the well-kept secrets about black people: that most of us weren’t interested in revolt; that most of us were tired of thinking about race all the time; that if we preferred to keep to ourselves it was mainly because that was the easiest way to stop thinking about it; easier than spending all your time mad or trying to guess whatever it was white folks were thinking about you.”

    Decker Ngongang, at 25 a risk and compliance manager at Bank of America’s headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., knows how tricky and stressful it is for successful black people to navigate two worlds. “You feel a little scared when a lot of white people like you, feeling like you have to confirm your blackness,” said Ngongang, whose mother is native-born and father an immigrant from Cameroon.

    He likes Obama, but already, he said, it’s as if “Barack is the black dude that white people are comfortable with and that in turn makes black people uncomfortable.” Like Oprah.

    “You have to find a way to walk the fence,” Ngongang said, and Obama has to do it with the whole nation watching. “He’s either going to become president or go crazy.”

    The last time Gallup asked the question, in 2003, 92 percent of respondents said they would vote for a well-qualified presidential nominee of their party “who happened to be black.” But when in September 2006, Gallup asked “Do you think Americans are ready to elect a black president?”, only 58 percent said “yes” _ 64 percent of whites and 43 percent of non-whites.

    To University of Chicago political scientist Michael Dawson, that reflects blacks’ far bleaker attitude about the state of race in America. After Hurricane Katrina, in a national survey, Dawson found that nearly 80 percent of blacks _ but only a third of whites _ thought racial equality would not be achieved in their lifetime, if ever.

    Lester Finney, who makes and sells T-shirts on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Belle Glade, Fla., a poor community on the shores of Lake Okeechobee, is too well acquainted with the intractability of the race issue to conclude otherwise.

    “He’s not going to win,” Finney said of Obama.  “He’s black.”

    Finney’s wife, Katrina, is reading “The Audacity of Hope.” She is drawn to Obama.

    “We all own a piece of him,” she said, referring to her own, Obama-like set of in-laws. “In Las Vegas, my cousin’s wife is Greek. My uncle’s wife is German. Another uncle, his wife is Asian and American Indian. My younger brother is married to a Samoan woman in Portland (Ore.).”

    When she explains to her husband that Obama is not really a “black American,” he upgrades Obama’s chances, but not by much.

    America‘s not ready,” Finney said. “It’s too mean.”

    Embedded here is a deep foreboding about what fate might befall a black man on his way to the White House. Listen to black talk radio and hear the dread: “It’s still America. There would be those who would fear for his life,” said Rip Daniels, who owns and has a show on WJZD in Gulfport, Miss.

    Weeks before the Philadelphia murders back in 1964, Ross Barnett, who had just completed his term as Mississippi governor, wrote: “When the American consensus is agreed that it is unkind to create false hopes and unattainable desires in the mind of the Negro and that it is unfair to set goals for him which he cannot reach and to expect of him that which he cannot achieve, then will sanity be restored to American race relations.”

    Like her father, Barnett’s daughter, Ouida Atkins, is an active Democrat. But in ways her father could hardly imagine, Atkins, a retired teacher who still volunteers at Lanier High School in the heart of Jackson‘s black community, is enamored with a black candidate for president of the United States.

    “I think he’s great,” she said of Obama. “I really do. He has a presence. He has that John Kennedy style.”

    The other day Atkins had two black couples over for dinner. She served sticky chicken. They shared her good feelings about Obama, but not her optimism about his prospects.

    “They wish it would happen, but they are afraid to hope so,” said Atkins, who late this month will be the Black History Month speaker at Paul W. (Bear) Bryant High School in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Her theme: “Do you have a dream?”



Written by jonathantilove

October 28, 2008 at 10:37 pm

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