Monday, June 2, 2008

Barack Obama and Exceptional Black People

Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Assistant professor in the Department History with a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute

With Barack Obama on the cusp of securing the Democratic nomination for President of these here United States, it appears that white Americans (at least those who don’t live in Appalachia or think that Ann Coulter is the second coming of Mother Theresa) are in fact ready for a black President. But does this mean that white Americans are ready for black people? Dramatic pause…Jeopardy music….buzzer…..time for the answer….Nope. I hate to burst the bubble of those who believe that “We Americans” (and by “We Americans” I don’t mean everyone, just white Americans, kind of like the framers of the US Constitution when they wrote “We the people”) are on the cusp of a post-racial society, because we aren’t. We aren’t even close. But how can this be if “We Americans” are ready for a black President?

The truth of the matter is that ordinary white Americans over the last few decades have shown a remarkable ability to embrace African American super celebrities. When it comes to Oprah or Tiger or Magic or Michael (Jordan that is, not Jackson, even white people realize that Michael Jackson has lost his mind) race no longer matters. They are considered extraordinary individuals who have mastered their craft. They are admired and idolized for their professional accomplishments. Until now, the colorblindness that African American peak performers have enjoyed has been limited to those in the arts, entertainment, and sports. What we’re seeing in this presidential election is the application of this phenomenon to electoral politics. Barack Obama has become a super celebrity, and if you don’t believe me, ask any of the 75,000 people who came out to hear him speak in Portland recently.

As a super celebrity, Obama benefits from the personal exposure that ordinary African Americans don’t receive. This enables white Americans to get to know him – his character, his views, his values. Even if this exposure is only superficial – sound bites on CNN or youtube – it’s enough to humanize him, and in the process, ordinary white Americans see that the dominant stereotypes about African Americans simply don’t apply, to him at least.

And here is the rub. Most white Americans see African American super celebrities as different from African Americans as a whole. These African Americans are not just exceptional individuals; they are exceptions to the group. They are articulate, well-mannered, hardworking, family oriented, and most importantly, uninterested in speaking about white supremacy. This is why Rev. Jeremiah Wright troubled so many white people, even staunch Obama supporters. Rev. Wright, in their eyes, represented the real black America – he was angry, unpatriotic, unchristian, and secretly hated white people. Those on the far Right pointed to Obama’s pastor and said, “See, we told you Obama was black. And you know what that means – he’s angry, unpatriotic, unchristian, and secretly hates white people. So don’t even think about voting for him. Better yet, you better hide the women and the children!” And many months earlier, Rush Limbaugh warned white Americans not to be fooled by the Jedi mind tricks of this “magic Negro” who has snookered so many people into believing that he is something other than a black man. On the Left, when the Rev. Wright “controversy” surfaced, quite a few asked, “Could this be true? Is Obama really like the rest of them? We thought he was different.” Consequently, they called for Obama to renounce, denounce, reject, forsake, or forswear his pastor. And when he finally did after Rev. Wright’s performance at the National Press Club, they said, “Whew, that was close. For a second, we really thought Obama was like the rest of them. Welcome back to colorblind stardom.”

So, when will we know that America is ready not just for a black president, but for black people? When white Americans realize that the personal characteristics that they admire most about Barack Obama are not his alone, but are shared widely by African Americans. Obama is an exceptional African American, but he is not an African American exception.

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