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Black Like Me

In 1994, two sociologists went to Red Hook, Brooklyn, to solve amystery. Red Hook abutted the East River, and along the waterfrontsat shipping companies and warehouses--all in need of low-skilledlabor. Next door sat a housing project teeming with exactly that.But the locals--primarily African Americans--didn't get hired.Instead, the jobs went to workers from outside the neighborhood,often Caribbean immigrants. Employers, wrote The New Yorker'sMalcolm Gladwell in summarizing the sociologists' findings, "haddeveloped an elaborate mechanism for distinguishing between thosewho they felt were `good' blacks and those they felt were `bad'blacks." Were the employers racist? Yes and no. They clearly heldanti-black stereotypes. And they discriminated against those whoconformed to them, even by association. But they discriminated infavor of blacks who defied those stereotypes. A man named BruceLlewellyn described the phenomenon this way: "White people love tobelieve they're fair."

As it happens, Llewellyn wasn't talking about Red Hook. He wastalking about his cousin, Colin Powell--whose prospectivepresidential bid enjoyed mass white support roughly a decade ago.Like the employers in Red Hook, whites discriminated in Powell'sfavor because he challenged their negative stereotypes of blacks.First, he had succeeded in a respected white institution: themilitary. Second, he was the child of immigrants, a man whosefamily history highlighted America's opportunities, not its racism.Third, he wasn't ideologically radical. And, fourth, he didn't lookor sound stereotypically black. No one was blunter about this thanPowell himself. Asked in 1995 to explain his appeal to whites, hevolunteered that "I speak reasonably well, like a white person,"and, visually, "I ain't that black."

Barack Obama would never put it that way. But he surely understandsthe uncomfortable subtext behind the adoration being showered uponhim by white America. Obama, too, succeeded at a prestigious whiteinstitution: Harvard Law School. He, too, is a child ofimmigration, able to declare in his 2004 Democratic conventionspeech--in words that could have come from Michael Dukakis or JoeLieberman (but not from a descendant of slaves, without heavyirony)--that "in no other country on Earth is my story evenpossible." And he, too, doesn't sound or look too black. Fifteenyears ago, a State University of New York political scientist namedNayda Terkildsen doctored photos of a fictitious gubernatorialcandidate to make him lighter- or darker-skinned and then showedthem to Kentucky focus groups. "The dark-skinned black candidate,"she noted, "was evaluated much more harshly than his lighter skinnedpeer." Powell knew what he was talking about.

In U.S. politics, as in Red Hook, there are no "good" blacks without"bad" blacks. In the mid-'90s, reporters frequently compared Powellwith Jesse Jackson: a man who fit all the stereotypes he defied.Today, it probably helps Obama that Al Sharpton, with his 2004presidential run, became the "president of black America." For manywhite Americans, it's a twofer. Elect Obama, and you not onlydethrone George W. Bush, you dethrone Sharpton, too.

But being the "good" black is tricky. The more whites love you, themore you must reassure your own community that you are still one ofthem. And the more you do that, the more you jeopardize your whitesupport. In 2002, when the highly articulate, light-skinned,Yale-educated Cory Booker ran for mayor of Newark, NewJersey--becoming a darling of the white press--incumbent SharpeJames used that support against him, tarring him as inauthenticallyblack. Last fall, when the well-spoken, light-skinned, St.Albans-educated Harold Ford Jr. ran for Senate in Tennessee, hisfamily's political prominence in the Memphis black community madesuch accusations impossible. But it was those very connections-- toa family viewed negatively by many whites--that may have cost himthe race.

For Obama, walking the tightrope is a little easier. Unlike Booker,Obama's African American wife, his connection to the black church,and his work as a community organizer give him racial credibility.But, unlike Ford, he has no obvious ties to Jackson/Sharpton style"bad" blacks. And, compared with Powell, he benefits enormouslyfrom changes in the political climate. The first big change is thecollapse of crime as a political issue. In the 1980s and early'90s, Democrats had to adopt ultra-hard line stances on crime toreassure anxious white voters. And blacks had to go even further.Had Obama run for president in 1992, he would have had do tosomething akin to Bill Clinton's infamous execution of mentallyretarded murderer Ricky Ray Rector--which would have hurt him withblacks. Today, by contrast, he can largely oppose the death penaltywith hardly anyone seeming to mind.

The second big change is welfare reform, which has significantly de-racialized the debate over taxing and spending. Because of welfarereform, the percentage of whites saying "poor people have becometoo dependent on government assistance" has dropped markedly.That's good news for all Democrats, but especially for Obama, whowould be particularly vulnerable to suspicions that he was tryingto redistribute money from whites to blacks.

But Obama doesn't merely benefit from the decline of raciallysaturated issues like welfare and crime. He also benefits from thefact that, as racial polarization has declined, religiouspolarization has increased. When the culture war was primarilyabout race, black candidates were inherently divisive (and whenthey tried to reach out, they risked seeming insufficiently black).Today, however, it is white liberals who seem divisive, because theyare perceived as secular. Black liberals, by contrast, areconsidered authentically devout, and, thus, bridge-builders. In the'80s, it would have been virtually impossible for a black candidatewith substantial black support to credibly promise to spanAmerica's cultural divide. Today, it is at the heart of Obama'sappeal.

Does this mean that U.S. politics have transcended race? Not at all.In a presidential campaign, as in Red Hook, blacks must still defywhite stereotypes to succeed. What has changed is that defyingthose stereotypes doesn't require moving as far to the right.That's hardly utopia, but it's progress. And, for Obama in 2008, itmay be enough.

By Peter Beinart; Peter Beinart is a senior fellow at the Council onForeign Relations.