June 8, 2008
How black is too black?
Millions of African-Americans celebrated Barack Obama’s historic victory, seeing in it a reflection — sudden and shocking — of their own expanded horizons. But whether Mr. Obama captures the White House in November will depend on how he is seen by white Americans. Indeed, some people argue that one of the reasons Mr. Obama was able to defeat Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton was that a large number of white voters saw him as “postracial.”
In other words, Mr. Obama was black, but not too black.
But where is the line? Does it change over time? And if it is definable, then how black can Mr. Obama be before he alienates white voters? Or, to pose the question more cynically, how black do the Republicans have to make him to win?
Social observers say a common hallmark of African-Americans who have achieved the greatest success, whether in business, entertainment or politics — Oprah Winfrey, Magic Johnson and Mr. Obama — is that they do not convey a sense of black grievance.
Clearly, Mr. Obama understands this. Until his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, forced race into the political debate, Mr. Obama rarely dwelt on it. He gave his groundbreaking speech on race only in response to the Wright controversy.
Indeed, after he effectively won the Democratic nomination on Tuesday, he left it to the media to point out the racial accomplishment, and the relative he thanked most emotively was the woman who raised him: his white grandmother.
There is a reason for this. Race is one of the most contentious issues in American society, and, as with many contentious issues, Americans like to choose the middle path between perceived extremes. “In many ways, Obama is an ideal middle way person — he is just as white as he is black,” said Alan Wolfe, a political science professor at Boston College.
John McWhorter, who is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, put it more bluntly: “White people are weary of the kinds of black people who are dedicated to indicting whites as racists. So, to be ‘too black’ is to carry an air about you that whites have something to answer for.”
That was the root of Mr. Obama’s Jeremiah Wright problem. Mr. Wright spewed exactly the kind of angry racial repudiation that many whites associate with black leaders.
Orlando Patterson, a professor of sociology at Harvard, argues that the one arena where black grievance is acceptable is in music, particularly in hip-hop, where an estimated 70 percent of listeners are white. But the generation exposed to hip-hop, mostly under 40, are part of what Mr. Patterson calls a growing “ecumenical” American culture that is unselfconsciously multiracial.
This Obama Generation came of age in the post-civil-rights age when color, though still relevant, had less impact on what one read, listened to or watched. It was the common crucible of popular culture, he said, that forged a truly American identity, rather than the “salad bowl” analogy cherished by diversity advocates.
Mr. Obama’s campaign so de-emphasized race that for most of the 17-month nomination contest much of the news media became obsessed with the question of whether he was “black enough” to win black votes.
Most African-American Democrats were for Hillary Clinton early on, until voters in Iowa proved to them that whites would support a black candidate.
Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. said that Mr. Obama, unlike the immediate successors of Martin Luther King Jr., understood the importance of language and the need to frame social debate in a way less likely to alienate whites.
“In the absence of Martin Luther King,” he said, “I think the void was filled by Stokely Carmichael, James Bevel and Jesse Jackson,” who did not use language as well. “With all respect to my father, 40 years later, this is the first time we have gotten back to a very thoughtful and careful approach to language.”
But a crucial difference between Dr. King and Mr. Obama, said the King biographer Taylor Branch, was that Dr. King sought to point out hypocrisy and shame white people into changing the system.
It was not simply framing and language choice that has helped Mr. Obama reach white people. He is genuinely of a different place and time than the generation of black leaders forged in the civil rights struggle. His story is, in part, an immigrant’s story, devoid of the particular wounds that descendants of American slaves carry.
His father was a black Kenyan and his mother a white American. His mixed-race heritage is less discomfiting to whites, Mr. McWhorter said, than the more common source of black Americans’ mixed-race blood: the miscegenation of slavery.
Mr. Obama’s generation of black political leaders have benefited from the gains of the civil rights movement, and are now attempting to broaden them. They include Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark; Adrian Fenty, the mayor of Washington; Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts; and former Representative Harold Ford Jr. from Tennessee. They attended top schools, often in the Ivy League and often law school as well, and began their public-service careers in community organizing rather than in national civil rights organizations.
So far, only Mr. Obama and Mr. Patrick have won offices that required large numbers of white voters to support them.
Mr. Ford made a run for the United States Senate, but fell short — thanks, in part, to suggestive ads by his opponent that featured a white actress.
The smaller and older generation of black Republicans who could aspire to high office seem to generate less white suspicion. The approval ratings of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice — each the most popular members of George W. Bush’s cabinet during their respective tenures — suggest they would be among the most popular black candidates with non-black voters.
Patrick J. Buchanan, conservative commentator and former aspirant to the Republican presidential nomination, said it was Mr. Powell’s military credentials that made him appealing to whites.
“Barack Obama’s got problems — in central Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky — that Colin Powell wouldn’t have,” Mr. Buchanan said. “Colin Powell did his duty in Vietnam, he’s a soldier, a general.” (Mr. Obama was too young for Vietnam.)
For decades, pollsters have found that one of the prejudices white Americans commonly hold about African-Americans is a belief that blacks are less patriotic, despite serving in the armed forces in greater proportion than their share of the population.
Ms. Rice, who grew up in segregated Birmingham, sounded as if she were refuting that very prejudice when she was asked for her reaction to Mr. Obama’s race speech.
“What I would like understood as a black American is that black Americans loved and had faith in this country even when this country didn’t love and have faith in them, and that’s our legacy,” she told The Washington Times editorial board.
A rising generation of black leaders has opened up new possibilities. But so have the increasing levels of white tolerance. What is impossible to know, today, is how far that tolerance will extend.
For instance, Mr. Patterson said research consistently showed that roughly one in five whites continues to hold racist views. Indeed, a poll by the Pew Research Center in March found that 20 percent of white Democrats over the age of 44 found interracial dating unacceptable; only 3 percent of white Democrats under 44 felt that way.
Mr. Buchanan said Mr. Obama’s monolithic support among blacks was likely to stoke such white animosity.
“There’s a sense among some folks that if African-Americans are voting 90 percent for ‘one of us;’ then you’re going to vote for ‘one of us,’ ” he said. When Norm Kagan, a white 62-year-old supporter of Mrs. Clinton’s, was asked in St. Paul, Minn., if white voters in the state would support a black man, he immediately raised the specter of crime, as if the mere mention of blacks brought it to mind. “We’ve all had our problems,” he said. “Every now and then someone gets mugged or robbed. The most economically challenged — which are mostly black — are most often the criminals and not to be trusted.”
Some Republicans have used such associations to defeat Democrats. But political analysts point to signs that the culture-war tactics are losing steam. They note the Republican loss in 2006 of both houses of Congress, and the recent Democratic victories in traditionally Republican districts in special Congressional elections in Mississippi and Louisiana.
Rick Perlstein, author of “Nixonland,” about the G.O.P.’s political strategy since the 1960’s, said many of the issues like crime that allowed Republicans to divide and conquer no longer exist.
One of the biggest issues this year is the economic downturn. Shared distress may trump racial divisions, he said.
Democrats shouldn’t think that things will always be the way they have been, said Mr. Perlstein, a liberal. “Change does happen,” he said. “And it happens overnight.”