Thursday, February 15, 2007


Barack In Black

One would have thought that this, "Is Obama really black?" nonsense would have been over by now. But, no, CNN was doing, "Blacks and Obama -- Where's The Love?" on Wednesday night.

That followed an otherwise rather nice profile on Sunday's "60 Minutes" where correspondent Steve Kroft had to ask, "You were raised in a white household…. Yet at some point, you decided that you were black?"

Obama answered it in a straightforward -- and I believe, accurate -- manner: "Well, I'm not sure I decided it. I think, you know, if you look African-American in this society, you're treated as an African-American. And when you’re a child in particular, that is how you begin to identify yourself."

He said that he is black because he is perceived as being black when he walks down the street (though the later, "I also notice when I'm catching a cab, nobody's confused about that either," line somehow didn't ring true. From personal experience, it seems to me that nicely dressed black men rarely have trouble catching a cab -- just like a well-dressed white man. The difference is when the casual attire comes out. Two men -- one black and one white -- both wearing jeans and a baseball cap: The odds are with the white guy getting the cab. Yet, somehow, I can't see Obama ever dressed in jeans and a baseball cap. Besides, once you're in the U.S. Senate, the staff tends to hail the cab, anyway).

Another way of saying this is that, regardless of where we are born, the society in which we grow up -- over an extended period of time -- shapes our observations and reactions. There are undoubtedly a countless number of times where Obama "learned" that he was different from his white peers.

But, as Andrew Ferguson notes in a Weekly Standard dual review of Obama's two books, the man was always aware of his blackness, unlike some of his middle-class black friends, he saw no reason to adopt the "angry young black man" persona that many chose (interestingly, Clarence Thomas adopted the "nationalist" pose for a while, when he was in college):

Obama is the shrewdest of memoirists. He won't let himself, or his reader, off easy. As a teenager he befriends Ray, another African-American boy who vents his authentic black rage between classes at their prep school, as the ocean breezes stir the towering palms overhead. This black rage was "the thing that Ray and I never could seem to agree on . . .

Our rage at the white world needed no object, he seemed to be telling me, no independent confirmation; it could be switched on and off at our pleasure. Sometimes . . . I would question his judgment, if not his sincerity. We weren't living in the Jim Crow South, I would remind him. We weren't consigned to some heatless housing project in Harlem or the Bronx. We were in goddamned Hawaii. We said what we pleased, ate where we pleased; we sat at the front of the proverbial bus. None of our white friends treated us any differently than they treated each other. They loved us, and we loved them back. Shit, seemed like half of 'em wanted to be black themselves--or at least Dr. J.
Well, that's true, Ray would admit.
Maybe we could afford to give the bad-assed nigger pose a rest. Save it for when we really needed it.
Now, obviously, given that the two young lads are the same age, there is something different in Obama that makes him not want to default to the "bad-assed nigger pose." Yet, it was obvious that, at even that point, he thought of himself as culturally "black" -- even after being raised by a white mother.

What is most disappointing is that much of the current discussion did not come from the straightforward black intellectual left -- say a Cornel West or a Michael Eric Dyson.

No, it was initiated from two people whom I greatly respect for their rejection of the usual liberal black orthodoxy -- Stanley Crouch and Debra Dickerson.

Dickerson in Salon echoed the comments Crouch first made back in November the New York Daily News -- even using similar phraseology:

Crouch: "If we then end up with [Obama] 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."

Dickerson: "Since [Obama] had no part in our racial history, he is free of it. And once he's opened the door to even an awkward embrace of candidates of color for the highest offices, the door will stay open. A side door, but an open door."

As I said when Crouch's column first appeared:
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.
In what way, exactly, is Obama not "black"? Because by many of the markers that both American blacks and whites have dealt with race, Obama is as black as anyone. Is it because his father isn't an American-born black? Well, both of Colin Powell's parents were born in Jamaica and the "he isn't really black" stuff never arose (with the possible exception of those who condemned him for being a Republican). Is it because Obama's mother is white? Well, as the notorious "one-drop" rule that plagued America for much of its history would tell you, the fact that a black man had a white mother was hardly novel in the United States. Didn't matter, the offspring was black.

Is it because his father was African? Well, the earliest black nationalist -- Marcus Garvey -- urged American blacks not only to embrace their African heritage, but to leave America and return to Africa.

So, now, we're supposed to think that a real "African-American" isn't black enough for the American black community?

The debate itself is insipid.

Indeed, the best deflaters of these foolish notions are those who refuse to take them seriously, such as Saturday Night Live's "blackness scale" and Stephen Colbert's devastating takedown of Dickerson.

Say what you will about Joe Biden, but after he put his foot in his mouth about Obama -- he stopped! Can the media now move on and examine more interesting things about the Illinois senator -- like his stand on the issues. Hell, he's a politician: His race is one thing about him that won't change over the course of this campaign.

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