In the increasingly unlikely event that Barack Obama does not become president, Martin Luther King’s dream would reveal itself as tragically unrealized 40 years after his death. Not, however, because whites were standing in that dream’s way, but because of the black people standing alongside them.
Yes, black people. I find myself unable to trust that more than a sliver of black America would be able, if Obama lost, to assess that outcome according to--of all things--the content of his character.
For 40 years, black America has been misled by a claim that we can only be our best with the total eclipse of racist bias. Few put it in so many words, but the obsession with things like tabulating ever-finer shades of racism and calling for a “national conversation” on race in which whites would listen to blacks talk about racism are based on an assumption: that the descendants of African slaves in the United States are the only group of humans in history whose problems will vanish with a “level playing field,” something no other group has ever supposed could be a reality.
The general conversation is drifting slowly away from this Utopianist canard, but nothing could help hustle it into obsolescence more than an Obama presidency, especially for the generation who grew up watching a black man and his family in the White House and had little memory of a time when it would have been considered an impossibility. At the same time, nothing could breathe new life into this gestural pessimism like an Obama loss. It would be the perfect enabler for a good ten years of aggrieved mulling over “the persistence of racism,” which, for all of its cathartic seduction, would make no one less poor, more gainfully employed, or better educated.
The prevailing sentiment would be expressed in tart declarations, considered the height of black authenticity, that bigotry did in the Obama campaign. Even now, the idea that white swing voters might pass on him because of his positions or campaign performance is considered a peculiar notion, likely from someone unhip to the gospel that America remains all about racism despite Colin Powell and Oprah. The money question is considered to be why our Great Black Hope isn’t polling tens of points ahead of John McCain and his discredited party. But Obama has been a sure shot only with Blue America college-town sorts, animated not only by Obama’s intellect, but also by his “diverseness” and its symbolic import for showing that our nasty past is truly past.
Obama, in fact, has limitations as a communicator beyond black people and the “Stuff White People Like” set. In his first debate with John McCain, when McCain assailed him as a big spender, Obama was almost strangely uninterested in pointing up the things he wants to spend money on--i.e., exactly the things needed by the struggling working class people he has trouble making inroads with. Luckily, he’s gotten past this some recently (see his calling health care a “right” during the second debate and his brass-tacks speech in Toledo on Monday). However, overall, professorial Obama still seems oblivious to the power of slogans. Reagan had “Morning in America”; Bill Clinton had “The End of Welfare As We Know It.” Obama has had the likes of the gauzy “Yes, We Can,” stirring as an opening gambit and good on T-shirts, but offering little to the folks facing layoffs while trying to pay their mortgage. To struggling black folks, ethnic identification pushes Obama over the edge regardless. But all folks aren’t black.
The Wisconsin chairman of the Republican Party notes, then, that for lunch pail whites, “I don’t think race is an issue at all. A bigger problem is that Barack Obama has a sort of show pony style. The speeches and the classic double speak and being a great orator, that kind of thing doesn’t play well in Wisconsin.” That is, there are plenty of non-racist whites who need a candidate to show them something more than I.Q. and a poignant multicultural provenance. In not finding Obama’s dreams of his father worthy of a vote, they are evaluating him as Dr. King would have counseled.
These are transitional times. In a recent Bloggingheads dialogue, Ta-Nehisi Coates admitted to me that Iowa had forced him to “reassess” his pessimism as to how far America has come on race. If Obama loses, people like Coates will desist in their reassessments, and settle back into their cognitive comfort zone. Whites will cheer on the sidelines: Nothing would establish a Good White Person’s bona fides on the race thing more than assenting that the racism “out there” is “still around” and has vanquished the audacity of hope.
The grievous result of this fetishization of racism would be that it would put a kibosh on the upsurge in black voters’ political engagement amidst the Obamenon. Newspaper articles would quote blacks disillusioned from getting excited about any future black candidate--e.g. “I thought maybe America was finally getting past racism but it turned out not to be true.” 2009 would be a year of countless panel discussions, quickie books, and celebrated rap couplets wallowing in the notion that the white man wouldn’t let Obama into the Oval Office where he belonged, urgently reminding us that to be black is still to be a victim.
Promising black politicians like Cory Booker, Deval Patrick, Adrian Fenty, and Harold Ford would find it harder than Obama did to attract support for presidential runs: No matter how stirring their speeches, the good word would be, “Look what happened to Obama!” And for years to come, professors would teach the 2008 election as a lesson about racism rather than about a heartening near-victory that no one could have imagined as recently as 15 years ago.
In August the hot news was The New York Times/CBS poll noting that one in 20 whites said they would not vote for a black man. Even those most self-appointedly vigilant about the depth of America’s racist roots had a hard time pretending that one in 20 was exactly threatening--but then the poll also showed that one in five whites thought most of their friends would not vote for a black presidential candidate. But imagine a poll asking people about their friends that revealed, say, that they thought most of them weren’t racists--something not hard to imagine. Social scientists would likely laugh it out of the room--“anecdotal,” and so on--because it would be telling them something they didn’t want to hear.
In September it was the AP/Yahoo poll making the inbox rounds, showing that a third of white Democrats agreed with the pairing of at least one negative adjective with blacks. But how hard is it to imagine that someone who says black people are more likely to, for example, be angry than whites might nevertheless be an Obama fan? After all, it wasn’t so long ago that the wise cocktail party comment on Obama was that he is “the kind of black person white people are okay with.” In line with that, the same poll shows that three out of five whites who pair a negative adjective with blacks intend to vote for Obama anyway.
And so it goes: All evidence is that the role of racism in Obama’s reception has been and will be blissfully marginal. Yet it is hardly unlikely that the race will be close. And as such, because there surely are backwards people out there who will not vote for Obama because he is black, it will not be impossible to fashion an argument that racism decided a McCain victory.
Of course, the best case will only be that racism tipped the election by a few points. But besides the fact that there will be equally coherent arguments that it did not, the proper analogy would be that pneumonia is often what kills AIDS patients. No one would claim that this means that pneumonia, as opposed to lung cancer, heart disease, or AIDS itself, is a grievously urgent medical crisis in America. Yet black America’s shorthand consensus will be founded upon just such a logical fallacy: that “Obama lost because America remains a deeply racist country.”
Why would such an athletically pessimistic conclusion be so attractive to black people? Partly because of insecurity, as Shelby Steele artfully framed it in his signature book titled, as it happens, The Content of Our Character. Unsure of our worth after 350 years of abuse and just 40 years blinking in the light of an America past Jim Crow, we too easily seek the crutch of noble victimhood as a substitute for a true inner pride it can still be hard to feel deep down.
Another reason is that for blacks who are not poor--i.e. most black people, as quiet as it’s kept--this Cassandra tendency is a gesture of solidarity with our less fortunate fellow blacks. Black America is poised awkwardly between a private commitment to keeping our heads up despite the obstacles and a sense that our public face should be one of tribalist plangency. Tyler Perry’s plays and movies are runaway hits with black audiences featuring Perry’s drag grandmother character Madea counseling Bill Cosby-esque “deal with it” wisdom. Yet, as Peggy Noonan nailed it on blacks’ reception of Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s victimologist rantings, we are also committed to Walt Whitman’s “barbaric yawp,” asserting “I’m still loyal to our bitterness.”
This bone-deep antipathic sentiment is processed as a key element in informed black identity. To let it go is to risk, for one, seeming unfeeling about the innocent black 17-year-old slammed against a police car by cops trawling a neighborhood on a drug bust. Then also, to let it go would mean imagining that Barack Obama missed the prize simply because he wasn’t up to it. Many black people aren’t ready to face something like that squarely just yet: Black America, understandably given its history, is nursing an inner-wound.
That Obama’s loss in the general election may have more to do with his performance than his melanin will be treated as something to acknowledge parenthetically at best. And that will be a dismissal of the very lesson Dr. King tried to teach us. Two decades ago, when Jesse Jackson ran for president and Time magazine did a cover with his picture and the headline “JESSE!?”, it was just to sell copies: We all knew America wasn’t ready for a black President. Perhaps the reaction was partly due to certain things about Jackson himself, but who knew that not so long later, a black man would be within a hair’s breadth of the White House in part because of his race? Yet, if we truly understand that King’s lesson was that black people are whites’ equals and not eternal poster children, then we must confront the fact that race is not the only reason Obama could lose.
King’s next birthday celebration will be, as it happens, the day before Inauguration Day, and I dread the prospect of black America treating King Day as an opportunity to rue how McCain’s swearing in will show “far we have to go” 40 years after King’s death, rather than celebrating that how close Obama came to the prize showed how magnificently far we have come.
John McWhorter is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.