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The Real Burdens of a Black President? Double Standards and Polite White Racism


US President Barack Obama poses for a photo with children in Orlando, Florida.
Photo Credit: AFP

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.

But, I am sure that we all have many stories where we as black and brown strivers, or full members of the professional class were made acutely aware of our race, were held to a higher standard than our white colleagues, or were criticized for a shortcoming (real or imagined) that would have gone overlooked for a white peer.

We may not have to be ten times as good to get half as far, but black and brown folks still need to be a hell of a lot better than our white peers to do just as well. In all, Barack Obama's presidency, and the challenges he faces from the White Right are so potent because it is our story amplified on a national stage.

Coates continues:

When you are deemed a "credit to your race," as Joe Louis so often was, the weight can be crushing. But it also can be the source of great power. In championing the reviled, the battle-weary, the low, you champion something greater than yourself. Wherever you fight, you are always fighting for your hometown. You trade the aspect of the lone wolf, for that of the wounded bear with rearing up in defense of her cubs.  

Thus it was with little surprise (though some small thrill) that I watched Barack Obama maul Mitt Romney last night, much as Louis mauled Schmeling in the rematch all those years ago. Unlike Louis, Obama's bout continues on. But should he lose the election it will not be in the shameful manner which, to some, appeared imminent. He will not fall as "the lethargic, chicken-eating, young colored boy." He will not go out confirming the warped logic of those who hate him and the community in which he is rooted. He represents too much.

Joe Sununu's calling Obama a lazy black bum; Gingrich saying that Obama is not competentand has a special black rhythm that involves sleeping and eating all day; Romney's son talking about punching Obama in the face because the uppity negro back-sassed his poppy Mr. Charlie; the birtherism, graderism, and other conspiranoid fantasies of the White Right, are part of a persistent pattern of disrespect that is a function of more than naked partisanship.

Conservatism and racism are intertwined in modern American politics. The White backlash against Obama is prefaced on a sense of group position and group entitlement. For a significant portion of the white voting public the idea of a black man as president is anathema to their understanding of authority. Many of these people, as a function of living in American society, are so sick with white racism and white privilege that they are not even aware of what motivates their anxiety towards people of color, generally, and a black president, specifically.

While it is true that Obama received significant white support, a majority of white people did not support him. Current public opinion research suggests that these dividing lines of party, ideology, and identity have only hardened since his election.

These people are not Klan card holders or other caricatures of depraved Whiteness and racial chauvinism.

No, they are the nice people who are surprised and made nervous when a person of color enters the room as their training seminar leader. They are the nice white teacher who appreciates the capriciousness and "high-energy" level of the white boys in her class, but isquick to mark a black or brown child as "disruptive" for doing the same things. These are the people who have many more follow-up questions for their black or Latino teachers, doctors, nurses, mechanics, or consultants in order to establish the latter's bonafides and ability, who by comparison choose to accept white expertise by people similarly trained and titled as a given.

The mouth breathing bigots will not defeat Barack Obama. The quiet, polite, collegiate, quiet racists who assess black people by a different set of rules (often unknowingly) will be the ones who defeat him in November. In their eyes, the polite and colorblind racists saw the demon of racism exorcised by the election of the country's first black president. It is time to end the experiment; a black was given a chance and he showed that he was not up to the job; let's end the trial run now; racism is dead.

Maybe that is the real burden of blackness. Could the great irony be that a black man was elected president only to see the justice claims of African-Americans further marginalized because his mere presence in the White House was taken as a justification for colorblind racists and the White Right to argue that racism and white supremacy are no longer significant social forces in American life? Moreover, to enable their bizarre claims that white people are victims of racism in the Age of Obama?

On election night in November 2008, archconservative Bill Bennet said that Obama's victory meant that African Americans had better stop complaining, and young blacks should pull up their pants and get ahead in life. In that moment, he let slip how Obama's particular burden of blackness could actually be used in the service of the white racial frame and the New Right's post civil rights agenda. Four years later, those seeds have grown into adulthood.