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The Content of Our Character

Nov
3
2008

Let’s be clear: If Sen. Barack Obama is not elected president tomorrow it will indeed be because he’s black.

It won’t be because he’s not tough enough – that’s a euphemism that questions Obama’s judgement and suggests that the color of his skin makes his thought process somehow inadequate. And it won’t be because he’s a “graduate student” – that’s a jab that implies that Obama’s not really that smart – he can’t be, he’s black.

No, if Obama loses it will be because a large number of Americans can’t bring themselves to vote for a man with dark skin. They may feel Obama is not “ready” – code, like all these other phrases, for “not a white person we can trust”. They may not like the idea of a First Lady – silly title, really – who is very dark-skinned and “angry” – which is how whites often describe black folks who aren’t obviously grateful for the “opportunities” they’ve had.

Each of these euphemisms ignores a simple fact: African-Americans who have done well at the nation’s top law firms, its Ivy League universities, its corporate boardrooms have had to demonstrate perseverence, judgement, diplomacy, intelligence and toughness and fortitude. More so, much more so, than their white counterparts.

That’s on top of the the obvious insults. For the past few days, the Republican Trust Political Action Committee has been airing a television commercial here in San Francisco that neatly sums up all the criticism of Obama, imagined and otherwise. It claims Obama’s “power base” was built in the church run by Rev. Jeremiah Wright and accompanied by pictures – and some audio – of Rev. Wright talking about the “KKK” and “god-damn” America. The ads end: “Barack Obama, too radical, too risky.”

What’s interesting about this ad isn’t what it says – same old, same old from a political party that’s happily scared the daylights out of white folks for a generation – it’s where it’s running. San Francisco is one of the most liberal cities in the U.S. But it is not a white city; it’s Asian, mostly Chinese. The ad I’ve described is aimed at instilling fear in those immigrants, taking a racist stereotype that many may know and imposing in on a man they may not.

It’s scurilous, it’s racist and well, it tells you what many, many people really think about Obama. The Wright ads are a slightly more sophisticated version of the scenario concocted by that Texas college student who dreamed up an attack by a tall black man who was supposed enraged by her John McCain bumper sticker. The subtext: Be afraid of Obama because, given the chance, black people will inflict deliberate harm on whites out of anger, jealousy or revenge.

This nonsense is not confined to the stupid or the politically naive. How else can you explain the speculation that Gen. Colin Powell’s endorsement of Obama was motivated by racial solidarity? Or silly Monica Crowley’s dismay that Jet and Ebony magazines had gotten better treatment on the Obama campaign plane than writers from the New York Post and Washington Times? This nonsense is nothing more than a variation on another theme: It is very hard for people of different races to truly see one another but, for crying out loud, they don’t all think alike.

This is one ugly mirror of race relations in this country, a mirror that not very many white folks like to look at. Which is something that – if Obama does win – will start to change.

Everyone has their shopping list on this one. My great hopes is that Obama’s election will do away with a lot of nonsensical chatter about “post-racial.” This is a stupid phrase that’s code for “do they know?” as in “Does Michelle know she’s the only black woman in the room?” The answer to that question is obvious: If you were the only white woman in a room of African-Americans would you “know”?

“Post racial” is how people in power describe a world they think welcomes black folks. This is a world that many of them – as Time columnist Joe Klein put it awkwardly – don’t really understand. With reason. The most amusing thing about the Charlie Rose show where Klein made his comments was also the most appalling. In an election year that has seen two historic candidacies, a black man and a white woman run hard for the Democratic Party’s nomination and break our concept of what it means to be a successful politician, Rose’ guests, all talented journalists from “major” outlets, were all men and they were all white. I guess the “qualified” female commentators are still bitterly weeping over Sen. Clinton’s loss so they didn’t have time for Rose. And, of course, the black reporters are all on the Obama campaign plane, reveling in their new found status.

This would be a very different election if, as Obama has suggested, this country had a conversation about race and race relations and not just between white guys talking to themselves about themselves. Events – the stock market crash first and foremost – have taken the urgency of that exchange off the table. But in a nation where whites will soon be a large minority, not a majority, it’s one that’s needed, regardless of who wins tomorrow.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 7:48 PM | Permalink

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