Is Obama Black Enough?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Jim Young / Reuters

U.S. Senator Barack Obama

For all the predictable outrage Joe Biden's recent comments about Barack Obama elicited, the gaffe put a spotlight on one of the more unfortunate forces fueling Obamania. Ever since Barack Obama first ascended the national stage at the 2004 Democratic convention, pundits have been tripping over themselves to point out the difference between him and the average Joe from the South Side. Obama is biracial, and has a direct connection with Africa. He is articulate, young and handsome. He does not feel the need to yell "Reparations now!" into any available microphone.

But this is a double-edged sword. As much as his biracial identity has helped Obama build a sizable following in middle America, it's also opened a gap for others to question his authenticity as a black man. In calling Obama the "first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy," the implication was that the black people who are regularly seen by whites — or at least those who aspire to the highest office in the land — are none of these things. But give Biden credit — at least he acknowledged Obama's identity.

The same can't be said for others. "Obama's mother is of white U.S. stock. His father is a black Kenyan," Stanley Crouch recently sniffed in a New York Daily News column entitled "What Obama Isn't: Black Like Me." "Black, in our political and social vocabulary, means those descended from West African slaves," wrote Debra Dickerson on the liberal website Salon. Writers like TIME and New Republic columnist Peter Beinart have argued that Obama is seen as a "good black," and thus has less of following among black people. Meanwhile, agitators like Al Sharpton are seen as the authentic "bad blacks." Obama's trouble, asserted Beinart, is that he will have to prove his loyalty to The People in a way that "bad blacks" never have to. Obama, for his part, settled this debate some time ago. "If I'm outside your building trying to catch a cab," he told Charlie Rose, "they're not saying, 'Oh, there's a mixed race guy.'" Obama understands what all blacks, including myself, know all too well — that Amadou Diallo's foreign ancestry could not prevent his wallet from morphing into a gun in the eyes of the police.

For years pundits excoriated young black kids for attacking other smart successful black kids by questioning their blackness. But this is suddenly permissible for presidential candidates. Beinart's good black/bad black dynamic is the sort of armchair logic that comes from not spending much time around actual black people. As the New Republic points out, Sharpton has an overstated following among black people. In 2004, when Sharpton ran for President, his traction among his alleged base was underwhelming. In South Carolina, where almost half of all registered Dems were black, both John Kerry and John Edwards received twice as many black votes as Sharpton. But this hasn't stopped media outlets from phoning Sharpton whenever something even remotely racial goes down. And it hasn't stopped writers from touting Sharpton's presumed popularity among black people, as opposed to "palatable" black people like Obama.

The black-on-black argument seemed to be bolstered by recent polls showing Obama significantly trailing Hillary Clinton among black voters. But reading into poll numbers that way is a clever device, hatched by mainstream (primarily white) journalists who are shocked — shocked! — to discover that black people aren't as dumbstruck by Obama as they are.

What they fail to understand is that African-Americans meet other intelligent, articulate African-Americans all the time. In almost every cycle since 1984, at least one of these brave chaps has run for President. Forgive us if we don't automatically pledge our votes to Obama and instead make judgments based on things besides skin color — like, heaven forbid, issues. Joe Biden may have misspoken — and in the process probably destroyed any remote hopes of winning the nomination — but he spoke truthfully for a lot of his ilk; Obamania is rooted in the belief that 50 Cent, not Barack Obama, represents the real black America.

Back in the real world, Obama is married to a black woman. He goes to a black church. He's worked with poor people on the South Side of Chicago, and still lives there. That someone given the escape valve of biraciality would choose to be black, would see some beauty in his darker self and still care more about health care and public education than reparations and Confederate flags is just too much for many small-minded racists, both black and white, to comprehend.

Barack Obama's real problem isn't that he's too white — it's that he's too black.