The Real Burdens of a Black President? Double Standards and Polite White Racism
Ta-Nehisi Coates has a great essay on Barack Obama and the burdens of representation and blackness that folks should take the time to read. I have argued that boxing analogies are a very poor fit for politics. But, part of Coates' genius is that he can take a bad example, and salvage it so nicely, in order to make a trenchant point. He knows his cultural politics quite well. When I grow up I would like to be able write like him:
In 1936 Joe Louis faced off against Max Schmeling. Louis was young and undefeated. More significantly for our purposes, he was the pride of his people. The shadow of Jack Johnson still loomed -- a man who had lived a sordid life, consorted with white women, and drove the country to riot. Unlike Johnson, Louis was a "credit to his race." He was clean. He didn't trash talk. He handled his business in the ring and humbly returned to his corner. He was distinctly aware of his status as a standard-bearer, an ambassador, for his people, and his people loved him for not embarrassing them...
Like Joe Louis, like Warren Moon, like any black person significant for the fact of being black, I imagine that Barack Obama would love to have only the burden of being great at his craft. All presidential candidates represent something larger than themselves, and in that sense their loss is always broadly shared. But few classes in America have so little to lose as the one Obama represents.
This is an enormous burden to carry. Obama is hated because he is black. Obama is loved by some because he is black, the President of the United States, and the embodiment of a particular type of black genius. His blackness is a source of strength. It is also a liability. He is in many ways obligated to a community. But, Obama cannot claim that community lest he remind his detractors that he is a member of it.
Obama was able to win the presidency because he was an "exceptional negro" and a "good one" when viewed through the white gaze. However, such praise existed in a vacuum, was contingent, and could easily default back to a position where being black, American, breathing air, and nearby was good enough to jettison one's support for him. Obama's blackness is like a version of the Rock of Sisyphus: it grounds him and offers some protection. But, it is also a liability.
Barack Obama is going to lose the election in November. This will create a cottage industry for analysts, political scientists, historians, and others who study American politics. I have always thought that the more interesting question regarding Obama was not if a black person could be elected president. Rather, what we should have been asking was, could a black president be reelected to a second term?
Elections are referendums that involve a backward looking assessment, a consideration of how things are doing in the present, and how a voter thinks the future will be. Different voters apply these rubrics in different ways and to various degrees. Obama's burden of blackness is that all things being equal--and despite the fantasies of Conservatives, racially resentful white people, and the Right-wing media--he will be assessed more harshly than a white man in the same position.
This is what Coates, in his analogy to Joe Louis teases, but does not drive home. The old saying was that we used to have to work ten times as hard to get half as far as white people. With the decline of Jim and Jane Crow, the rise of colorblind racism, as well as "soft" institutional white supremacy, that metric has changed to some degree.