Ninety percent of black Democrats support Barack Obama. So that might leave an observer wondering: What the hell is up with that other 10 percent? Are they stupid? Do they hate their own race? Do they not understand the historical import of the moment?
I can shed some insight on this demographic anomaly. In gatherings of black people, I'm invariably the only one for the Dragon Lady. I'll do my best to explain how those of us in the ever-shrinking minority of a minority came to our position.
But, before going any further, let me fully disclose my predispositions. I disliked Obama almost instantly. I never believed the central premises of his autobiography or his campaign. He is fueled by precisely the same brand of personal ambition as Bill Clinton. But, where Clinton is damned as "Slick Willie," Obama is hailed as a post-racial Messiah. Do I believe that Obama had this whole yes-we-can deal planned from age 16? No, I would respond. He began plotting it at age 22. This predisposition, of course, doesn't help me in making the case against Obama, especially not with black people. But, believe me, there's a strong case to be made that he isn't such a virtuous mediator of race. And it's this skepticism about Obama's racial posturing that has led us, the 10 percent, into dissent.
Let's begin with the locus classicus of Obama love, Andrew Sullivan's encomium in The Atlantic. He writes:
Earlier this fall, I attended an Obama speech in Washington on tax policy that underwhelmed on delivery; his address was wooden, stilted, even tedious. It was only after I left the hotel that it occurred to me that I'd just been bored on tax policy by a national black leader.
This is presented as a confession, and Sullivan honestly admits his reaction is based on his stereotyping of blacks. Add to that another Obama supporter, Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, calling Obama the first black politician to "come to the American people not as a victim but rather as a leader." You hear this kind of talk all the time. Never mind the dignified glories of Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., Colin Powell, Kurt Schmoke, and others. We have arrived at the crux of the matter. So much of the educated white people's love for Barack depends on educated white people's complete ignorance of and distance from the rest of us. Barack is the black person they want the rest of us to be--half-white and loving, or "racially transcendent," as the press loves to call him. And, since picking a candidate makes you allies with his other supporters, why would I want to be allies with educated whites whose glorification of Barack depends in large part on their implicit denigration of the rest of us?
But, once you stare past the radiant glow surrounding Obama and begin to study the exact reasons for his so-called racial transcendence, you can't help but conclude that it is mostly hokum. Why do black people love Obama? In large part, it's because of the dark-skinned woman on his arm. Black people (especially black women) are nuts for Michelle. Had Barack married a white woman, his candidacy would've never gotten off the ground with black people. And would whites really be so into him if he hadn't had a white mother? Based on U.S. political history, you would have to conclude: not a chance. My suspicion is that people are ultimately comfortable with Obama because a member of his family looks like them--and, if you think about it, that's not terribly transcendent.
It is Obama's biography, we are told, that will govern his behavior. He was raised by a mother who supposedly didn't see color, so he doesn't see color. He was born into tolerance and multi-racial understanding, so he will practice tolerance and multi-racial understanding. Except, that is, when it's not useful to him.
Which brings me to South Carolina, where I was born and raised. I was there before and during the primary. Recall the moment. Obama was gaining on Clinton--but had also just lost New Hampshire and Nevada. A loss in South Carolina, and he would have been done for.
It's worth remembering that the majority of blacks still think O.J. Simpson is innocent. And, in times like these, when a black man is out front in the public eye, black people feel both proud and vulnerable and, as a result, scour the earth for evidence of racists plotting to bring him down, like an advance team ready to sound an alarm. Barack needed only a gesture, a quick sneer or nod in the direction of the Clintons' hidden racism to avail himself of the twisted love that rescued O.J. and others like him and to smooth his path to victory, and, therefore, to salvage his candidacy. After Donna Brazile and James Clyburn started to cry racism, Barack was repeatedly asked his thoughts. He declined to answer, allowing the charge to grow for days (in sharp contrast to how he leapt to Joe Biden's defense a month earlier). But, while he remained silent about the allegations of racism, he gave speeches across South Carolina that warned against being "hoodwinked" and "bamboozled" by the Clintons. His use of the phrase is resonant. It comes from a scene in Malcolm X, where Denzel Washington warns black people about the hidden evils of "the White Man" masquerading as a smiling politician: "Every election year, these politicians are sent up here to pacify us," he says. "You've been hoodwinked. Bamboozled."
By uttering this famous phrase, Obama told his black audience everything it needed to know. He was helping to convince blacks that the first two-term Democratic president in 50 years, a man referred to as the first black president, is in fact a secret racist. As soon as I heard that Obama had quoted from Malcolm X like this, I knew that Obama would win South Carolina by a massive margin.
I'm part of an Internet group of black people who yammer on about politics. You could extrapolate from polling data that I would be the lone Clinton supporter in the bunch. And, indeed, I am. A member of the group posted the following anecdote after Barack's now famous race speech:
Last week, I was sitting in a lobby chatting with the woman next to me. All of a sudden, she grabbed my hand as if she realized at that moment that I was black. She asked, do you go to church? I responded in the affirmative. Then she asked, do you go to a black church? I said yes. She said, I'm so glad that I met you. I have been really wanting to discuss this with someone. Is it true what they are saying about what goes on in the black church? I smiled and we had a lovely chat about pastors, Obama, civil rights and all things colored. She looked so relieved and really wanted to understand.
This story broke my heart. As the son of a Baptist minister, I can attest that Wright is and was an extreme aberration from how the overwhelming majority of black Christians worship. In church, black people hear about Peter, Paul, Mary, and how to get into heaven. How to forgive. How to love. Not how to vote.
But here was Barack suggesting that Wright's behavior was commonplace in black churches: "I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community." He generalized Wright's ridiculousness to distract from his individual choice to worship under a buffoon for two decades. I have a cousin who attended Wright's church for three weeks and then left, never to return. She had no interest in hearing his nonsense from the pulpit.
Barack obscured the true nature of black religious life because, to do otherwise, he would have had to answer the question, "Why are you a member of a church that is this racially divisive and such a sharp aberration to how the rest of black people worship?" When Barack beautifully suggested that the beliefs pronounced from the pulpit of Trinity in Chicago are not uncommon, he was feeding us garbage. But Barack needed to protect his reputation as a race-healer and unifier, so he told a lie about black religious life to help keep the glow of his own reputation alive. And now the evidence suggests that Barack didn't, in the end, break with Wright over his outrageous racial claims, but over his suggestion that Barack is just a politician.
That so many people have a stake in ignoring these real concerns is troubling. At least the Hillary supporters I know seem to be aware of her more unsavory traits: that she carries a knife with her that she could pull out at any minute. Not so with Obama's fans. It's nearly impossible to get them to admit any wrong in him. Given the choice, I prefer to side with the group that knows their candidate can be a jerk, rather than the group that believes their candidate is Jesus.
Cinque Henderson is a TV writer, working on a book about Abraham Lincoln.
By Cinque Henderson