By Farooq A. Kperogi
Barack Obama may well become America’s next president. But will his epoch-making success be no more than a mere flash in the pan, a once-in-a-life-time, never-to-be-repeated opportunity for black Americans? Or are there other black American politicians that have the potential to replicate the success of Barack Obama?
In other words, are there other “Obamas” in Black America? I’m using Obama here as a trope for a transcendent black American politician whose appeal cuts across all racial and social demographics.
To answer this question, it’s useful to account for Obama’s unprecedented, some would add unanticipated, appeal to white Americans who have traditionally been leery of black politicians.
Is it because of his mixed-race heritage? As Obama himself likes to say, to alliterative effect, he is the scion of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas. Well, if his mixed-race filiation were the only reason for his mass appeal, most black American politicians would have been successful too because many of them are also biracial, even multiracial, Americans.
A recent analysis of the DNA pool of African Americans showed that over 75 percent of them have more than a modest tincture of white blood in them. A vast proportion of them, in fact, have as high as 70 percent white genes in them. By contrast, only about 25 percent of white Americans have traces of black blood in them.
Indeed, there are many African Americans who are genetically “whiter” than Obama. Take, for an example, Louis Farrakhan, head of the controversial Nation of Islam and probably the most hated—and feared—black figure in white America today. He has a higher percentage of white genes in his DNA than Obama who is only half white. And Louis Henry “Skip” Gates, arguably the most celebrated living African-American scholar, was mystified when he discovered recently that he is actually less than 25 percent “black” in his DNA; over 60 percent of his genes are Irish.
These are mere representative samples of the complex multiracial identities of a vast majority of black Americans—a reminder of the painful history of the serial rape of black American women by white slave owners during slavery and of the then unlawful marriage between black and white Americans, which was derisively called miscegenation.
So Obama’s biracial identity cannot fully account for his success at appealing to white voters where other black Americans had failed. So what could it be? Could it be because the sheer force of his oratorical power is irresistibly hypnotic? Well, oratory is, in fact, an abiding hallmark of Black America. That’s why in America, it is redundant (some even consider it insulting) to describe an African American as “articulate” because it is a displacement of the norm to find an inarticulate African American. Oratory is a collective gift to Black America.
And that’s why Obama’s oratorical skills, impressive as they are, are scarcely anything to make a song and dance about in Black America. In fact, a prominent African American politician recently controversially described Obama’s rhetorical skills as “mediocre.” This characterization is certainly unfair, but I have lived long enough with African Americans to know that Obama’s skills at delivery and verbal ornamentation are not outstanding—by the standards of Black America, that is. So, although Obama’s oratory is mesmerizing to white America and to Africans like me, it doesn’t even come close to being one of the best in Black America. That eliminates his skills in grandiloquence.
So what is it then? It seems to me that Obama’s appeal to white America is fairly and squarely traceable to his self-conscious transcendence of factious racial politics. Of course, this transcendence of race, often called his “postracial” image, is complemented by the progressive breakdown of racial prejudice in much of white America. Without the ever-increasing levels of racial tolerance among the majority white population, Obama’s story would never even have been possible, however much he chose to be “postracial.”
I know I am exposing myself to the risk of being accused of reductionism—reducing a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon to a single explanation. However, I am not discounting the many other valid explanations for Obama’s phenomenal appeal to American voters who would otherwise not have voted for a nonwhite candidate. My point is that Obama’s studied postracial politics, aided in no small measure by the growing racial open-mindedness in America, is the crowning explanatory clincher for his extraordinary success.
As I have said in previous weeks, black America is an unbelievably angry community. I have never in my entire life seen a more angry people than black Americans. They are not only deeply resentful at and cynical about America; they are also hypersensitive and thin-skinned about race. The most innocuous jokes about race (or so it strikes me) from white people often sparks off intense, frenzied reactions.
(This is obviously a messy generalization that ignores many nuances and exceptions).
This is in part a response to the history of brutal racial oppression in America that Black Americans have been victims of and in part a consequence of being perpetually stuck in nursing the wounds of the past.
It’s got so bad that when white Americans find an American black who isn’t angry and who doesn’t make them feel guilty for past historical injustices, they are actually surprised. Many of my white American friends and acquaintances have told me that, for them, one way to tell an African from a Black American is that Africans don’t seem angry.
John McWhorter, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, told the New York Times recently that "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." By this logic, Obama isn’t “too black.”
The only area where black anger can find untrammeled expression without having white America’s hackles up is in music, particularly in hip-hop, where approximately 70 percent of listeners are white, according to Dr. Orlando Patterson, a professor of sociology at Harvard.
One of Obama’s greatest appeals to white America is that, in addition to his many strengths, he doesn’t come across as an angry black man who is smoldering with the desire to retaliate for the past mistreatment of African Americans. Well, it may be said, and with some justification, that because he is not descended from the Black Americans who suffered unspeakable racial oppression, he can afford the luxury of “postracial” politics.
Nevertheless, many social observers say a shared attribute of African Americans who have overcome time-honored hurdles and made great strides, whether in business, entertainment or politics—Oprah Winfrey, Magic Johnson, Obama, etc—is that they transcend the politics of racial grudge in the manner of Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Cynthia McKinney, etc.
Notions of the eternally angry black man have conduced to a mind-set in white America that American blacks are not patriotic. Marcus Mabry, writing in the New York Times of June 8, 2008, noted that “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.”
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was born and brought up in racially segregated Birmingham, in the state of Alabama, appeared to be addressing that racial prejudice against Black Americans when she was asked to respond to Obama’s epochal speech on race in the wake of the controversy generated by his former pastor’s divisive sermons.
“What I would like understood as a black American,” Rice told The Washington Times, the notoriously conservative competitor to the Washington Post, “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."
Now, are there examples of African-American politicians who aren’t “angry,” who have moved beyond the Civil Rights era, and who have been accepted by white America? Yes.
They include Deval Patrick, the governor of the predominantly white state of Massachusetts; former House of Representatives member Harold Ford Jr. from the state of Tennessee who would have been a U.S. Senator now had he not lost his election by a very narrow margin; Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark in the state of New Jersey; and Adrian Fenty, the mayor of Washington, DC.
To be continued