A funny thing happened on the road to the White House: Black voters got behind Sen. Barack Obama in his race for the presidency; black leaders did not. There was Andrew Young, who lobbied a black audience for the Clintons and reassured them that “Bill [Clinton] is every bit as black as Barack”; there was Al Sharpton, who has withheld his political endorsement, reserving his trump for a safer hand; and there was Jesse Jackson, who scolded Obama for “acting like he’s white.” Such an accusation has quietly dogged Obama during his campaign, though Jackson has since rallied to the senator’s side. For these critics, Obama is a troubling figure, a man with black skin who is not fundamentally “black” in their understanding. And therein lies the most interesting part of Obama’s run for president.
In a 1998 piece for The New Yorker, Toni Morrison anointed Bill Clinton the first black president. “Clinton,” she argued, displayed “almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.” But these are all questions of money and means — tropes not of race, but of class. Clinton is not black — he was poor, and Morrison simply conflated the two. In an essay in Commentary about black identity, John McWhorter distilled that ugly notion to its essence: For these thinkers, “To be black is to be at the bottom.” Blackness is poverty; therefore poverty is blackness.
Moving beyond these simple definitions, Morrison postulated that black men identified with Clinton most as a victim, the helpless prey of a corrupt system (this was during the Lewinsky scandal). As she imagined it, “The message was clear: ‘No matter how smart you are, how hard you work, how much coin you earn for us, we will put you in your place . . .’” She identified Clinton’s prosecution as a “lynching,” even a “crucifixion.” In the eyes of black men, she argued, the black experience was fundamentally one of victimhood — blackness as helplessness. There is today no one more famous for being abandoned by his father than Barack Obama, whose memoir, Dreams from My Father, is about growing up without his namesake. Yet even so, Obama fails Morrison’s litmus test, lacking those other bona fides: poverty, drudgery, and toil. Obama, who has thrived in “the system” — as a student, as a legislator, as a candidate — has not shared in this experience, considered formative and fundamental.
No, he has led a charmed life — not at home, where he suffered from the loss of a father and a confused racial identity — but in his public experience in America. As he recorded in his memoir, “None of our white friends [at school in Hawaii] treated us any differently than they treated each other. They loved us, and we loved them back.” This does not fit the scheme that Morrison laid out — it flies in the face of her portrait of black identity.
Obama has not suffered the indignities of racism, and came late to the civil-rights work that was a fact of life for Andrew Young. Obama’s father was African, not American, and Obama was in that sense severed from the struggle and history in which Young played so decisive a role. Yes, he worked as a community organizer in the South Side of Chicago, but this overture was “a determination to be black,” as Shelby Steele so penetratingly describes it in his writing on Obama — a “[quest] for racial authenticity.”
Steele argues that American blacks have long adopted one of two styles of politics and presentation. There are the Bargainers, who make a deal with white Americans: “I will not rub America’s history of racism in your face, if you will not hold my race against me. . . . [Whites] respond to bargainers with gratitude, warmth, and even affection.” Richard Brookhiser called such a figure the Numinous Negro, a kind of American divinity in our collective psyche, embodied as much by Martin Luther King Jr. as by Oprah. “By touching our Numinous Negroes,” he wrote, “we show the world, and ourselves, that there is no racism in us.” Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, stated this feeling explicitly: “I plan to be moved to tears on the day that I vote for a black man for the presidency of this stained and stirring country.” The appeal is there for the right-minded white voter; but what of Obama’s standing among black voters?
Obama has upended the polls and may well secure a majority of the black vote from Hillary in South Carolina. Yet Steele sees an insurmountable obstacle: Obama is a “natural born” bargainer, but “today’s black identity is grounded in challenging,” an aggressive and antagonistic style of politics. “Challengers” — and here he names Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson — “never give whites the benefit of the doubt. They assume whites are racist until they prove otherwise. And whites are never taken off the hook until they (institutions more than individuals) give some form of racial preference to the challenger.” According to Steele, Obama cannot appeal to black voters and still please a white audience, which expects him to be conciliatory, understanding, and forgiving.
Al Sharpton sees this tension in a different way: “We’ve always had blacks on the inside and blacks on the outside. You always had blacks so-called in the system and blacks outside.” If Obama represents a real engagement with the political system, that “man on the inside,” Sharpton is still following the old style, useless for 40 years and then some. Bayard Rustin understood the issue in 1965: “Our problem is posed by those who accept the need for political power but do not understand the nature of the object . . . they tend to confuse political institutions with lunch counters.” As Obama said of Sharpton and Jackson, “They are serving an important role as activists and catalysts but they’re not trying to build a coalition to actually govern.”
For a self-promoter, every new face is a direct challenge, and Sharpton has been careful to hedge his bets on the ascendant Obama. He is waiting until just before the South Carolina primary to announce his endorsement, which will assert his influence to a maximum and keep his exposure at a minimum: If Hillary Clinton looks safe to secure the nomination at that point, there’s no longer any danger in announcing for her. If Obama is sitting pretty, Sharpton can help to move the large black vote in that state, making the odd gesture of handing the black swing vote to the black candidate. And in the end, Sharpton gets headlines, Sharpton feels powerful, and no change is made for the better. But Obama is likely to displace Sharpton, and this is a part of Sharpton’s own ambivalence about a black candidate, and a black president. The spat over Hillary Clinton’s remark that “it took a president” to impose Dr. King’s program can only serve to underscore this point — that Sharpton will soon be dispossessed. Further, Obama represents not only the possibility of success but the accomplished reality of it — a reality which flies in the face of Sharpton’s narrative of oppression and would deprive him of the basis of his appeal.
In sum, Obama is not radical enough, nor miserable enough, nor angry enough to pass that old, vile litmus test that judges authenticity. If Obama is not black because he has not suffered the right way, if Obama is not black because he has succeeded on his own, if Obama is not black because he has embraced the system rather than attacking it, then what is it to be black? Is it to be hopeless, to occupy a state of mind rather than a human form? To believe that is to be an outright racist. The embrace of Obama is an embrace of his success, a rejection of the failures that Sharpton and Jackson represent and feed on — and a signal that blackness is not comprised of Toni Morrison’s tropes and a life of opposition.
It clearly stings those Brahmins of the black community that this young man, who has not shared in their suffering, should claim their triumph. And it may sting them that someone of “mixed race” should bring this about, but even that is fitting; his miscegenated blood and miscegenated upbringing, as New Republic editor Martin Peretz wrote, would represent “an American experiment, an American achievement.” Obama is, for Peretz, a culmination of the American experience: a walking melting pot.
This language is excessive and this sentiment misplaced: Barack Obama is not the embodiment of King’s dream. But his candidacy is a definitive step away from the politics of rejection and defiance; in electing him, black voters are electing for a politics of fuller inclusion. His ascendance marks a death knell for the hucksters like Jackson and Sharpton, and eclipses the prominence of Civil Rights–era heroes like Andrew Young. If he secures the nomination, Obama effectively brings to an end the era of the sit-in and the notion of a collective black identity. This past summer, the NAACP held a mock funeral for the N-word, hoping to remove it from the lexicon; it is now time to lay a much more damaging thing to rest.
— Joseph Abrams is a National Review associate editor.