Friday, November 03, 2006


Black Like Who?

In Thursday's New York Daily News (America's 7th most-read daily), Stanley Crouch, who I count as a major influence in my career, devotes a column to how "really" black is Barack Obama:

So when black Americans refer to Obama as "one of us," I do not know what they are talking about. In his new book, "The Audacity of Hope," Obama makes it clear that, while he has experienced some light versions of typical racial stereotypes, he cannot claim those problems as his own - nor has he lived the life of a black American.

Will this matter in the end? Probably not. Obama is being greeted with the same kind of public affection that Colin Powell had when he seemed ready to knock Bill Clinton out of the Oval Office. For many reasons, most of them personal, Powell did not become the first black American to be a serious presidential contender.

I doubt Obama will share Powell's fate, but if he throws his hat in the ring, he will have to run as the son of a white woman and an African immigrant. If we then end up with him as our first black President, he will have come into the White House through a side door - which might, at this point, be the only one that's open.
It is odd that Stanley would say that Obama has not "lived the life of a black American," even though the man is obviously perceived as a black person. Strange too that he would contrast Obama with Powell who is as "not-American black" as the Illinois senator. Though both of Powell's parents are racially black, both were born in Jamaica. Powell talks about the mixtures of cultures that formed is background as much as Obama does his.

And how would winning the White House as the black American son of a white mother and an African considered getting in through the "side door"? If you win, you go through the front door just like anyone else.

As a Trinidadian, I will happily cop to the fact that Obama is "like me" -- and not only because he's only a few years older than I am.

My parents and I were both born in Trinidad. After a few years in the UK, I came to the United States when I was eight. However, I still had to deal with being called a "nigger", being viewed and treated suspiciously while browsing in a department store or generally being perceived as being in the "wrong place at the wrong time." In that sense, I have had to adjust to the American racial dynamic: I've "lived the life of a black American" -- and more.

But what actually makes Obama different is less a racial apect as it is a generational one. It's why Harold Ford and Michael Steele have managed to run the two best campaigns for Senate races this time around.

They both might lose, but they have managed to make broad-based cultural appeals that neither calls attention to their race nor tries to hide it. They are (as is, arguably, Deval Patrick running away in the gubernatorial contest in Massachusetts) examples of the "Generation Next" black politician.

They are smooth (in the good sense of the word) politicians who have enjoyed many of the same benefits as their white counterparts -- law school, corporate boards, working various aspects of the political and business fields. The "protest"/social redress model which infused the ambitions of the civil rights and immediate post-civil rights black politicians aren't part of the DNA of the new breed.

It's not surprising that Michael Steele would get the endorsement of an entrepreneur like Russell Simmons -- easily the most successful non-performer in three decade history of hip-hop. Simmons is to rap what Berry Gordy was to Motown. They are of a generation that sees the opportunites of American capitalism and believe in going out to grab them.

In short, while their may be wide disparities gaps in economic and social achievement between blacks and whites as groups, the differences between individual white and black politicians aren't nearly so great in terms of education, access and financial resources. Obviously, these guys can't play the victimization game -- because no one would believe it. Nor should they.

The new black politicians -- Republican or Democrat -- is looking much like America. They are -- hard-working, ambitious and optimistic.

Again, if and when one of these guys gets to the White House, they will be going through the front door -- and carrying the promise of white and black America.

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