Cornel West made news this week for his escalating attacks on the Obama Administration. The Princeton professor and prominent author is one of those political figures like Ron Paul whose sincerity, bluntness, and occasional insight make them consistently attractive in spite of their larger body of extreme ideas. Like Paul on the right, West carries heft on the Democratic outskirts and his decision to confront Obama from inside the Black community is significant.
But not as significant as what he actually said.
West opened up a subject that has been off-limits up to now – Obama’s blackness. West claimed that “all he [Obama] has known culturally is white” and “when he meets an independent black brother it is frightening.” He went on to state that Obama is more comfortable with whites and Jews. Classy.
In essence, West is condemning Obama for undermining the left’s central criteria for authentic blackness. That criteria? Acceptance of the belief that black victimhood is perpetual and inevitable in America (see John McWhorter’s book, Authentically Black).
Naturally, West’s comments have caused a stir, though the ruckus is mostly confined to the left. Let me just say that as a white guy, I find some guilty satisfaction in seeing a leftist black leader get himself bogged down in the same swamp of racial misunderstanding and misinterpretation that has frustrated white politicians for years. Dr. West, thank you very much.
So is Obama black? What should “black” mean? I can’t claim the authority to say it is just one thing. But it is hard to conceive of a version of a black American heritage that has no relationship to the experience of slavery or Jim Crow. In that sense, Obama is an African-American as a consequence of having a Kenyan father, but he is not black. Viewed through that definition a lot of the other weirdness we are experiencing suddenly makes more sense.
What difference should Obama’s heritage make? Hasn’t America treated him in the same manner it treated anyone else of his skin color? Well, yes and no.
Obama had an African father who was out of his life at an early age. He was raised in a middle-class white family in the state of Hawaii, which The Simpsons once correctly described as one of the “freak-states.” That upbringing delivered him a unique set of challenges and opportunities, but those were not a set of experiences common to most blacks in America.
Chris Rock has summed up blacks’ complicated relationship to America: “I love America, but if you’re black you gotta look at America as the uncle that paid your way through college,…but molested you.” One of most stubbornly lingering legacies of Jim Crow is the affect it had on blacks’ ability to accumulate wealth and get an education, two of the bedrocks of the American Dream. Until the 1960’s, education for blacks was extremely difficult to acquire, especially a quality higher education. Any wealth a black family accumulated was subject to being taken away from them on a whim, with no meaningful protections. The results were that blacks lagged in both areas.
Obama didn’t grow up hearing stories from relatives about encounters with a racist Sheriff. He didn’t face the limitations of a troubled school. He wasn’t raised with a latent understanding that any accumulated wealth was a vulnerability. He didn’t share any of the cultural cues so broadly experienced by blacks of his age in our country. So, good for him, right? So he lacks some of the burden of being raised black, what difference does it make?
It certainly gave him some strengths. He got an education that would have been very difficult for others of his time to receive. Think back to all those awkwardly racist comments made about Obama by Democrats back in the primaries. Remember how “well-spoken” and “clean” he was? What they were fumbling to express was that Obama was carrying none of the cultural markers born by black Americans. He was free from the legacy of a second-class education, poverty, limited opportunities and most importantly of all, the anger. He was an African-American who wasn’t black. We don’t have a taxonomy for that.
In many ways, the strengths of that upbringing were what made his election possible. I would argue that they have also made it exceptionally difficult for him to govern.
It’s not just that his “blackness” is suspect. Obama is chronically foreign. If he wasn’t raised in a typical black culture, he wasn’t raised in a typical white one either. Even George W. Bush, born wealthy in Connecticut, raised in privilege, divorced in every conceivable way from the realities of middle-class American life was able to communicate as if he knew us. That’s because he basically did. For all his insulation, Bush’s upbringing prepared him to deal with mainstream America. He could communicate his agenda, read the winds, and understand how his decisions (not just his speeches) would be received.
Obama’s background, whatever good things it may have done for him, does not seem to have granted him the kind of innate familiarity with the everyman culture of American life that even a George W. Bush could manufacture. When the time comes to move past soaring homilies and talk brass tacks he can’t seem to connect. And he bowls like his thumbs are broken.
Life under the Obama Administration is like being governed by a competent and admiring Norwegian. He means well and has some fine ideas, but he seems baffled by us. He struggles to comprehend our guns and our religion, our fears, our idioms, and why we don’t recognize the value of his sensible ideas. He never seems to know what he’s stepping in.
In some subconscious way, I think this combination of dark skin and foreignness feeds the hysterical Obamanoia we are living through. It makes it possible for politainers to portray a center-left compromiser as some kind of Marxist – or anything else their imaginations can conjure. An “authentically” black President, for example, would probably have understood the Shirley Sherrod scandal at first whiff. A Bill Clinton or even a George Bush would understand what’s in the heads of the Tea Party supporters and known how to handle them. Obama struggles to get them they way you struggle sometimes to know what your dog is thinking.
Obama’s background sets him apart either from the blue-blooded upbringing of our Bushes and Gores, or the folksy everyman heritage of a Clinton or Reagan. More than that, it sets him apart from…well, just about everybody.
There is nothing inherently wrong with that. No one, black or white should have to apologize for failing to suffer from racism, or having a background that doesn’t fit into a neat box. That’s not the point.
The point is that American politics is very personal. We like to believe that we elect people who reflect ourselves. Bizarre as it may be, even a George W. Bush had to operate under a carefully crafted illusion of familiarity. It is very hard to get elected in this country on the basis of how unique you are. It is even harder to govern that way.
Maybe if he had gone to Wall Street, or taken any other job instead of jumping straight from Harvard to “community organizing” he would have had a chance to get to know us. Maybe standing around in a cube farm, talking about weekend plans, or even sitting in a board room, he would have developed a feel for how middle America thinks. At any rate, it didn’t happen. It’s not clear how he’s going to get a crash course now. Reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond (or The Cosby Show) might shed some light, but they can only accomplish so much.
America will probably have a black President someday. If not, it will be because the term loses its meaning over time. Perhaps that is already happening. Maybe that’s what Cornel West is really concerned about.
But America will have a President who understands her, for better or worse, probably sooner than the Democrats would prefer. Whether you choose to classify him as black, white, gray, or pink, Obama for all his fine qualities, is not that guy.