If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman of any color, he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.
Geraldine Ferraro, Torrance Daily Breeze, March 7, 2008
It now appears that Geraldine Ferraro’s now-famous first sentence was at least partially right, albeit a week or so early. If Obama were a white man, he would not be in the position he is today: not, as Ferraro would have it, a position in which he receives the uncritical positive regard of much of the population, but one where he is being called to answer for the attitudes and actions of the entire Black community. Her fourth sentence proved prophetic as well: the whole country has been caught up in the concept.
The question before us, and before the superdelegates, is whether the third sentence was also true: is he very lucky to be who he is? Again, contrary to Ferraro, that does not mean lucky to be Black, but is he lucky enough — by virtue of both eloquent argument and personal example — to be able to defuse the effect of his being symbolically associated with those Blacks whom much of white America most hates and fears?
1. The Great Black Hope
This in turn leads to a larger question: can any Black person who is not firmly dissociated from Black radical thought be elected President?
What constitutes being firmly enough dissociated from Black radical thought? It is likely that the only evidence acceptable to political elites and much of the public would be would be membership in the Republican Party — the sort of slap in the face to most of the political Black community that can’t go unnoticed.
Republicans Colin Powell or Condoleeza Rice, then, might more easily be able to be elected President, because their party registration suggests little likelihood that either can be associated with the symbols of Black radical thought. (It might be interesting to look for some, though.) Were they able to become President, it would be specifically because the attacks that we see today would not manifest. The source of those attacks — persons and movements aligned with the Republican Party — would have held their fire for partisan gain.
It seems like eons ago, but we should remember that it has only been a couple of months since Blacks themselves doubted whether Obama could be elected President. Before South Carolina, Blacks — older Blacks especially — were slow to get on board with Obama because many of them believed that his nomination would fail due to attacks like the ones we see today. They feared also that the repercussions would damage the Black community: not merely loss of a critical election, but garnering blame for it.
Were they right to be so afraid of this? Obama will probably be nominated, so we’ll probably find out.
One thing seems clear, though: if Obama cannot withstand these attacks, it is unlikely that any non-Republican Black politician could do so. That may be a bit of national self-knowledge that we’d prefer to avoid, but that’s no longer possible: whether Obama loses the nomination or the election, it will either be clear to all it is because of his being demonized as cut from the same cloth as Black radicals, or clear at least to most Blacks. We are, like it or not, going to face a national test of our attitudes towards race.
His self-described “funny name” aside, Obama is about as good an example as could be imagined of a progressive Black politician who can appeal to white tastes. His primary theme is racial reconciliation. He speaks with what is considered to be standard unaccented English. He is cool without being offputting; witty as a Kennedy. If Obama cannot avoid being lumped in with “race men” like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton — let alone with the 60s radicalism of (to use the names they used at the time) Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Rap Brown, and Stokely Carmichael — and made to pay for the popular rejection of them, then what member of W.E.B. DuBois’s “talented tenth” could possibly avoid it? No one but a Republican.
A critic of Obama might reply that it would have to be someone who had no traffic with the Black radicalism — even that spoken from a pulpit in a prophetic voice — of the likes of Pastor Jeremiah Wright. First of all, that’s wrong: Obama is being called to task for being supported by those with whom he has had no truck: Louis Farrakhan, for example, or the members of the Black Panther Party who appear to have put up a page through his website. But second, a Black person who has no involvement with Black radicalism, who has cannot be considered complicit even as an audience member, is one who has no involvement with the Black community.
What I have here called “black radicalism,” for lack of a better term, stretches all the way from anti-white prejudice to mere assertion of group grievances that, coming from non-minority communities, would be considered completely acceptable. This is why Lanny Davis’s analogy of Pastor Wright’s black radicalism — asserting, based on a very fair reading of the Chritian Bible, that the country is to be damned if it cannot provide for its poor — to the bitter hate spewed by a leader of the KKK is reprehensible. One can disagree with Pastor Wright while acknowledging his anger, anger that also motivated Martin Luther King Jr. But you cannot equate Martin King and David Duke.
The problem is that whites fear that Obama will not see things they way they do, which they equate with “favoring Blacks.” He cannot distance himself as far as his critics would demand from any indicia of “favoring Blacks” without becoming Clarence Thomas, Alan Keyes, or Ward Connerly. He could not, in other words, satisfy them while still being a Democrat. (Let’s not forget what happened even to Harold Ford Jr.)
The attacks on Obama are unjustified, and yet they will continue, and will heighten in intensity. Something has to give. Hillary Clinton supporters — ignoring that she would be subjected to the same malicious and biased news reports and eventual ads performed in a different key, featuring radical feminists, abortionists, lesbians, transgendered, more than even she could denounce out of political expediency, as well as more personal attacks on corruption — argue that what must give way is the Obama candidacy.
I disagree. There was a time — back when so many elderly Blacks believed that this day was not possible — when it might have made political sense to cut short this experiment in true equality of opportunity. But to do so now would not only be immoral and unethical, it would be bad politics.
2. The Great American Hope
We face a test as a party and a nation. It has now come to this.
Our party now stands to reap the penalty of mistakes of the past, of allowing Blacks to be demonized. We have allowed the Black radicalism of the 60s to be dismissed, in majority culture, not with reasoned disagreement on aspects of the merits but with reflexive and undifferentiated revulsion. We have allowed Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to become curse words and punch lines in popular culture, rather than pointing out that they are not so different in manner or objective from Irish, Italian, Jewish, and even Scots-Irish politicians in the U.S. who have advocated for the fullest consideration of the interests of their community.
In perhaps the most famous single such incident in a Democratic primary, our 1992 nominee reacted to a poorly stated and poorly conceived sentiment expressed by a female rapper, Sister Souljah, not by acknowledging the emotion behind her comment and pointing out how it was wrong and self-defeating, but by almost gleefully seizing the opportunity to distance himself from Black grievances, pre-empt the possibility of apology and explanation, and thus ingratiate himself with whites who don’t like hearing such things. This was considered a political masterstroke at the time. The meta-message — that such people as this did not even have to be listened to or treated with respect — was as important as the content of the statement. (Indeed, the bare statement itself had less effect than the way it was wielded by Bill Clinton’s supporters in the days and weeks that followed.)
Every time we have done this, we have fashioned a weapon and handed it to our opponents. Is brilliant Jesse Jackson considered a demogogue, rather than someone who advocates powerfully, even if in an interested way, for his constituency? Then he now becomes a blunt object with which to beat Barack Obama. Is the prophetic and critical voice of the Black church now considered unpatrioptic? Then we have there fashioned an anvil to hand around Barack Obama’s neck.
It must stop, and it can stop, and it will stop, this year. We only have to break this mold once. Once Barack Obama becomes President, and people can see that a progressive Black man can be what he promises to be — a President for all Americans — then these attacks will no longer be so potent. (They will lose their potency in part, in fact, because they will have been deployed in a circumstance that it retrospect will strike people to have been ridiculous.) Fighting and winning this battle will help us redefine patriotism not as a cloak beneath which reprobates can steal from the commonweal, but a familial relationship with ones country that includes criticism even as it always includes love.
This is the year to seize our cudgels and break that mold. We are highly favored on the issues. Every time the opposition brings up race, we can point out that it is trying to use symbolic attacks to mask the issues that matter to Americans: the war, the economy, the environment, our health.
This is the year to put things starkly before the media: do they care about the issues that people care about, or will they continue to follow the lead of Drudge and Fox in letter racial animus divide the country?
Once the public has rejected the politics of racial animus, it will have learned something important about itself, something that as yet exists only as a theory: that it is capable of doing so. This is the year to press our advantage on the issues by using it to crush our disadvantage in symbolic politics.
I freely admit that I was nervous about taking on this fight, with the stakes being what they are. I shared the fears of elderly Blacks that the country was not ready to vote for a Black man. I was for Edwards and still have great respect for him. I distrusted Obama’s claim — clearly more aspirational than descriptive — that there were not two Americas. But I also had no idea of just how effective and masterful he would turn out to be in espousing that claim. We are one blended America, and he is the best representative I can imagine to refute those who would argue otherwise and to make that case. One America, where our party’s nominee can and will indeed be judged by the content of his character.
If, in the arena of racial harmony and respect, this country was not born great, if we have not yet in the past achieved greatness, then we must at least recognize that this year greatness has truly been forced upon us. We have come too far along this path to turn back now. Obama will, with our help, beat back the insinuations surrounding his relationship with Pastor Wright. We must all strive for that, we must come together, we must fight, and we must win.
If Obama were white, we would not be in this position. We would have neither the danger nor the opportunity before us. But we have no choice left but to fight: that is the position we are in. Let us join together and make a virtue of necessity.