Monday, February 05, 2007

Black Like Me

An interesting article about America's cultural divide and Obama's appeal to whites:
In the '80s, it would have been virtually impossible for a black candidate with substantial black support to credibly promise to span America's cultural divide. Today, it is at the heart of Obama's appeal. 

Does this mean that U.S. politics have transcended race? Not at all. In a presidential campaign, as in Red Hook, blacks must still defy white stereotypes to succeed. What has changed is that defying those stereotypes doesn't require moving as far to the right. That's hardly utopia, but it's progress. And, for Obama in 2008, it may be enough.



Black Like Me

by Peter Beinart  

Post date 01.30.07 | Issue date 02.05.07


In 1994, two sociologists went to Red Hook, Brooklyn, to solve a mystery. Red Hook abutted the East River, and along the waterfront sat shipping companies and warehouses--all in need of low-skilled labor. Next door sat a housing project teeming with exactly that. But the locals--primarily African Americans--didn't get hired. Instead, the jobs went to workers from outside the neighborhood, often Caribbean immigrants. Employers, wrote The New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell in summarizing the sociologists' findings, "had developed an elaborate mechanism for distinguishing between those who they felt were 'good' blacks and those they felt were 'bad' blacks." Were the employers racist? Yes and no. They clearly held anti-black stereotypes. And they discriminated against those who conformed to them, even by association. But they discriminated in favor of blacks who defied those stereotypes. A man named Bruce Llewellyn described the phenomenon this way: "White people love to believe they're fair." 


As it happens, Llewellyn wasn't talking about Red Hook. He was talking about his cousin, Colin Powell--whose prospective presidential bid enjoyed mass white support roughly a decade ago. Like the employers in Red Hook, whites discriminated in Powell's favor because he challenged their negative stereotypes of blacks. First, he had succeeded in a respected white institution: the military. Second, he was the child of immigrants, a man whose family history highlighted America's opportunities, not its racism. Third, he wasn't ideologically radical. And, fourth, he didn't look or sound stereotypically black. No one was blunter about this than Powell himself. Asked in 1995 to explain his appeal to whites, he volunteered that "I speak reasonably well, like a white person," and, visually, "I ain't that black."


Barack Obama would never put it that way. But he surely understands the uncomfortable subtext behind the adoration being showered upon him by white America. Obama, too, succeeded at a prestigious white institution: Harvard Law School. He, too, is a child of immigration, able to declare in his 2004 Democratic convention speech--in words that could have come from Michael Dukakis or Joe Lieberman (but not from a descendant of slaves, without heavy irony)--that "in no other country on Earth is my story even possible." And he, too, doesn't sound or look too black. Fifteen years ago, a State University of New York political scientist named Nayda Terkildsen doctored photos of a fictitious gubernatorial candidate to make him lighter- or darker-skinned and then showed them to Kentucky focus groups. "The dark-skinned black candidate," she noted, "was evaluated much more harshly than his lighter skinned peer." Powell knew what he was talking about.


In U.S. politics, as in Red Hook, there are no "good" blacks without "bad" blacks.


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