Politics & Policy

Obama’s Black Edge

Does it help or hurt him?

Obama Poses a Puzzle for Pollsters” alliterates a headline in America’s Newspaper of Record. The story under the headline goes on to speculate about how Barack Obama’s blackness will play with voters, should the Democrats indeed ignore my sage advice of this past year and a half and nominate Obama as their candidate instead of the ineffable, unbeatable Al Gore.

The story doesn’t seem to think there is much to go on other than the fabled “Bradley Effect” — nonblack voters being more willing to tell pollsters they will vote for a black candidate, than they are willing actually to do so. (The Bradley Effect was called the Dinkins Effect in Steven Levitt’s 2004 bestseller Freakonomics, but apparently nobody remembers this: one more data point for my theory that hardly anybody actually reads bestsellers.)

I beg to differ. I think there is more to be said about Obama’s blackness as a factor in people’s voting. There are positives and negatives to it. My rough guess — and I’m the guy who proclaimed that “Obama is toast” when the Rev’m Wright scandal broke, so don’t be running down to the bookmaker with this — my rough guess is that net-net, it’s a positive. Well, let’s see what we’ve got.


First the positives.

He’s black, period. At any rate — a nod here to Jonathan Miller — he’s black-ish. This is both a positive and a negative for Obama. I’ll get to the negatives later. It’s an obvious positive in that it gets him the enthusiastic votes of blacks and guilty white liberals.

He’s black, and so is God. Working in combination with other factors that I’ll get to, Obama’s négritude will help him with a lot of politically vague types who are neither black nor distinctively liberal, but who have been oriented the Obama way by decades of watching Numinous Negro types saving the world, or defying it with a supernatural level of dignity and gravitas, in the movies and on TV: characters played by Will Smith, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Michael Clarke Duncan, Denzel Washington, and of course the numinousest of them all, Morgan Freeman. There is probably now an entire demographic cohort of young Americans whose mental image of God is Morgan Freeman.

He’s black, and it’s time. There is an overlapping tranche of mostly apolitical Americans who, without having any particular feelings about, or even knowledge about, Obama and his policies, think it would be neat to have a black president. Possibly resignation will be in play for some part of this tranche: “It’s time, so we may as well.” When über-hawk Al Haig was running for president in 1988 there was a bumper sticker you could buy showing a picture of a mushroom cloud and the legend: Vote Haig — Let’s get it over with. Not that many people will think of Obama as the guy to start a nuclear war, but a lot of people might think that having a black president is a thing we shall have to try sooner or later, so it may as well be sooner. Let’s get it over with.

Some part of this same tranche will have heard about Obama’s great popularity abroad, and will then be seized by the famous American desire to be thought well of by other nations. Whence:

He’s black — how the world will admire us! “Americans want to be loved, the English want to be obeyed,” observed English Americanophile Quentin Crisp correctly. No true-born Englishman ever gave a fig about whether or not his country was liked. Who cares what foreigners think? As my old Dad was wont to express it from the depths of the paternal armchair: “Foreigners? Bloody fools, for all I can see.” No true American ever said or thought this, nor ever could. Obama’s popularity abroad will be worth several hundred thousand votes to him.

Now the negatives.

He’s black, period. Are there white Americans who will vote against Obama because they don’t like black people? Sure there are. You know some, and so do I. I doubt there are enough of them to swing any state; but there is more going on here.

He’s black, and all the white media and elite snobs are swooning over him. Human beings are tribal. We direct our big emotions at other members of our ingroup, except when there are consequential outgroups with whom we are in a state of acute conflict. White people voting against Barack Obama as a way of poking a finger in the collective eye of black America, will not be a big factor. As I’ve said, I doubt it will swing any state. Whites simply don’t care that much about blacks one way or t’other. Whites don’t regard blacks as consequential. White/black conflict is often annoying and occasionally scary, but it’s never existentially acute.

A much bigger factor, I believe, will be voters who reject Obama as a way of working off resentment against other whites. White resentment of blacks is a molehill; white resentment of media, academic, and political types — most of them white — who (as people see it) cover up for minorities, is the mountain.

He’s black, and the elites will cover for him. A few days ago there was an incident in Hartford, Conn., that got a lot of news coverage. An elderly man trying to cross the street was hit by a car. The car didn’t stop, and neither did others who passed the old guy lying there in the road bleeding copiously. Nor did any of the pedestrians around go to help him, though one went into the road to take a close look at him before sauntering away. The whole thing was captured on a low-resolution security camera.

When I first saw the clips, my suspicious and mean-spirited nature kicked in. I went to my computer and looked up the demography of that Hartford neighborhood. Uh-huh. (That’s just the broad zip code, which likely includes some gentrified zones. Here are student stats for the nearest public high school. Here are the same for the nearest public elementary school.) Yet in all the TV news and talking-head coverage of the incident, nobody bothered to tell us about neighborhood demographics. Not only did they not bother to tell us, they pointedly refrained from telling us. The talking heads were all: “What’s the matter with us?” and “How did we get this way?” and other verbal hand-wringings, while vast numbers of white TV viewers who’d already guessed the thing I’d looked up, were thinking to themselves: “Whaddya mean, us? This isn’t us, it’s them. Nothing to do with us.”

This kind of thing generates widespread resentment — not so much against minorities, whom white Americans think about as little as they can get away with, but against the whites who cover up for minority misbehavior, and pretend that it is something to do with “us,” a thing that only left-liberal whites believe, or pretend to believe as a way of asserting moral superiority over other whites. The same resentments apply to the media “burying” of news stories about really horrific attacks by blacks on whites in which racial hatred is an obvious factor: the December 2000 Wichita Massacre, the January 2007 Knoxville murders, or the current Columbia rape case. There aren’t many ways that resentful whites can get back at the media and cultural elites who browbeat and lie to them in this way, but they can at least decline to vote for “their” candidate, even if they don’t object to the guy’s blackness per se, or to anything he has said or done.

He’s black, in an exotic way. This can’t be underestimated. If the candidate was George Obama, or Barack Washington, he would be twice as acceptable to the voting public. Cast your eye back down the list of U.S. presidents. “Exotic” is surely one of the last words they bring to mind, even a tad behind “black.” (There is, after all, an excellent chance that on the one-drop rule, Barack Obama will not be our first black president.) Our country has always had a scattering of high-achieving exotics, but none of them ever got close to the White House. In their presidential preferences, Americans of all parties are conservative. Other things being equal, we prefer boring white guys.

Obama’s East African origins don’t help. Most black Americans take their African descent from West Africa. The distribution of physical types in East Africa is considerably different. (As we shall no doubt see in the upcoming summer Olympics, where runners of West African ancestry will take all the sprinting awards, while East Africans will sweep the long-distance events.) There is of course a lot of overlap, but enough difference in physical types to give Obama a tinge of strangeness. The minds of many nonblack voters — and perhaps some black ones, too — will contain, at some level well below the surface, a thought like: He’s a black guy, but is he one of OUR black guys?


Net-net, I think the positives will win out here. Setting aside policy issues and personalities, and just considering Obama’s blackness by itself, I think it will be a slight net plus. Practically no nonblack Americans care about black Americans in the aggregate, or think about “black issues” if they can possibly avoid it, or are willing to do anything on behalf of blacks collectively. However, great masses of nonblacks want to be thought to be the kind of person who cares, thinks, and does. Casting a vote for Obama will get you that, at least in your own head — and then, if the guy actually becomes President, vicariously, as a citizen of a country that performed a collective act of virtue.

Cheap grace? Sure. In the matter of nonblack responses to blackness, there is, after 40 years of trying, and adjusting, and legislating, and paying, and failing, no other kind of grace that’s marketable.


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