What Obama's Election Really Means to Black America [ Three Views ]

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*What Obama Means For Black Americaby John McWhorter

*He leapt the tallest barrier. What does it mean for black America? By Jonetta Rose Barras
*What Obama’s Election Really Means to Black America
By Steven Gray / Chicago


Obama supporters Mary Decker, center, Annete Davis, left, and others celebrate as the Democrat's presidential win is announced in Birmingham, Ala., on Nov. 4




CommentaryWhat Obama Means For Black AmericaJohn McWhorter 11.13.08, 1:32 PM ET



We have heard much about what the election of Barack Obama as president means for America, but less about what it means for black America specifically, beyond surprise and vague notions of hope.

The issue is not only the emergence of the new but the eclipse of the old. Here are some traits of pre-11/4 black America that are now history.

The studious black teen will no longer be tarred as “thinking he’s white.”

This has been a sad aspect of growing up nerdy for black students since the mid-’60s, when school integration left black students amid wary and often nasty white students. A natural response was a sense of school as the province of the other, i.e. “white.”

Since then, black peers have passed this notion down the generations. For decades, there have been innumerable reports of black students faced with a choice between hitting the books and having black friends.

From now on, however, there is a ready riposte to being tarred as “acting white” for liking school: “Is Barack Obama white?”

It’s the perfect smackdown–not even the most hardened black teen will disown the heroism of the first black president, in all of his nerdiness.

In the late ’60s, black people who had been in middle school a few years before noticed that their siblings were suddenly being called “white” for liking school. Just watch: in 10 years, black people suffering this treatment now will notice that their younger siblings and cousins are not–and Barack Obama will be the reason.

The illusion that Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are black America’s leaders is now officially dispelled.

Potshots that Jackson’s tears during Obama’s acceptance speech were over his own eclipse are petty: Jackson was surely as touched as the rest of us. However, the fact remains that his most memorable moments of late have been calling Obama “white” for not protesting in Jena, La., and later suggesting that he be separated from his reproductive organs for warmly advising black men to help raise their kids. In both cases, Jackson looked decidedly un-leaderly, and with Obama having won the day, he now looks antiquarian.

Meanwhile, recall Sharpton during a Democratic debate in 2004, accusing Howard Dean of racism in not having black people in his administration as governor of Vermont. Never mind that only about 3,000 people lived in Vermont, many of them children. Dean had to accept this out of respect to Sharpton as a “leader.”

Fast forward: This year, there was no routine with Obama seeking Sharpton’s “endorsement.” Sharpton’s initial harrumphs about Obama’s black bona fides, along with warnings that he had yet to “make up his mind,” were passing news at best. And who can recall just when Sharpton decided to come around? It didn’t matter–Obama is too beyond him.

Most black people have always considered Jackson and Sharpton celebrities rather than “leaders.” Non-black observers will now have no reason to suppose otherwise–and as such, will give up the talk-radio misimpression that black America lives in thrall to two colorful preachers. Obama’s greater gravitas is starkly apparent both in his office and in the substance of his intentions.

While we’re at it, black America need no longer worry about the supposed absence of “black leaders”–code for “Where is today’s King?” To the extent that we need one, we need only look toward 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., where someone will be ready to lead us into the roiling mainstream of this great nation rather than herding us into self-perpetuating aggrievement.

In that light, the idea that for black people, underdoggism is higher awareness is obsolete.

One of the strangest things about reading black writings of the old days is the ingrained optimism. W.E.B. DuBois in the aughts highlighted blacks making the best of themselves despite obstacles. Zora Neale Hurston bristled at being expected to write of lynchings rather than self-regard and triumph. Many black literati disowned Richard Wright’s Native Son as too pessimistic.

But in the late ’60s, just as segregation and bigotry began a rapid retreat, it became fashionable to treat black identity as plangent, wary of celebration where whites could hear it, glumly obsessed with tabulating ever-fraying strands of racism. No matter how successful many blacks are, no matter how many interracial couples there are, no matter how few “firsts” are left, we always have much longer to go than we have come. A shoe still hasn’t dropped.

Well, it just did.

A black man is president, and black Americans seem to feel like it really means something. As such, we will expect a sea change in the tone of what is considered the authentic black voice. Pollyanna, no. But it will be positive and constructive–as Obama has been on the topic of race–in the way that anyone would assume of a group that truly seeks progress.

Many have supposed that what black America needs was a second revolution in how white people think. Barack Obama’s election showed that white people’s thoughts weren’t so retrograde after all. White people voted with those thoughts–and now, even without a revolution, much of what black America needs to happen will be a reality.

John McWhorter is the author of The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, among other books, and has taught linguistics at Cornell and the University of California, Berkeley. He is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.


He leapt the tallest barrier. What does it mean for black America?

By Jonetta Rose Barras
Sunday, November 9, 2008; B01


African Americans have just entered the no-excuses zone.

We finally have one of our own in the White House. With Barack Obama‘s ascension to the highest office in the United States, most African Americans feel that we have arrived as fully equal citizens. But we need to recognize that with Obama’s victory come challenges — and that many of those challenges will be put to the black community itself.

Obama isn’t like the leaders who have traditionally spoken for black America. As president, he’s unlikely to embrace the confrontational identity politics that have defined black activism for so long. He won’t tolerate an African American brand of racism or a culture of violence. Nor is he likely to be patient with the long-standing narrative of victimhood that has defined black America to itself and to the mainstream for more than a century.

Obama is already constructing a new black political and cultural narrative — gathering together the best of the past, including the coalition politics that characterized the early civil rights movement and an image of strong black males that doesn’t involve bling-bling or hip-hop misogyny. He has decried the low-hanging pants fashion so popular with young black men, blasted rapper Ludacris for offensive song lyrics and called on fathers to take responsibility for their families.

Are African Americans ready to accept all this and respond positively? Are they ready for a truly post-racial America?

The answer isn’t clear. Just a few days after Obama’s stunning win, black America is already divided over what his election means, arguing about what it should expect from a “black president” — and about whether his first obligation is to black America or to all America. It’s an argument that reflects the continuing cleft within the community, between those who hew to the race-based politics advanced chiefly by the black power movement of the 1970s and ’80s and the so-called millennial or race-neutral generation, which appreciates but isn’t imprisoned by African American history.

The first group wants Obama to acknowledge that injustice still confronts black Americans. They want him to address the “black agenda” while creating an Afrocentric White House. “We hope there will be more attention than with previous presidents to issues pertinent to black people,” says juvenile justice expert and social commentator Michael Francis.

E. Ethelbert Miller, chairman of the Institute for Public Policy, believes that “black nationalists,” the disciples of identity politics, will measure Obama by the number of African Americans he appoints to his Cabinet. The new president “may have to pull out Maya Angelou for another poem,” says Miller, referring to the African American poet’s appearance at Bill Clinton‘s first inauguration. For his attention and service to the black community, Clinton — a white president — is, ironically, cited as the example Obama must aspire to emulate.

“There was considerable criticism of the Obama camp for its apparent lack of concrete outreach to the black community” during the campaign, said one black leader. “Now that he is president, those criticisms will morph into demands.”

But the second group says that there are important universal issues that must take priority: the global financial crisis, relief for homeowners, potential vacancies on the Supreme Court. “I think some of the demands are unrealistic,” says New York City-based finance expert Brooke Stephens, who believes that African Americans are forgetting that Obama “is not there just for us.”

One thing seems clear: Domestic issues such as health care, resolving the mortgage crisis and creating jobs in a recession will seem piddling compared with the treacherous task Obama faces of traversing the rickety bridge between mainstream America and the various factions of black America.

But Obama is a different kind of leader. More than a decade ago, I began tracking the rise of new black leaders, noting their slow but deliberate walk away from racial politics. Obama’s election follows that of U.S. Reps. Artur Davis of Alabama and Jesse L. Jackson Jr. of Illinois, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Newark Mayor Corey Booker — all part of the race-neutral leadership class. These savvy, sophisticated political leaders are comfortable in corporate boardrooms and on urban street corners. They understand the nuances of race and racism but refuse to wear them as albatrosses around their necks. They are innovators, exploring new and better ways of serving the disenfranchised and bringing various people together to improve our communities. They embody the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.‘s insistence that people should be judged by the content of their character. Obama’s arrival in the White House underscores the reality that the post-civil rights era is in full swing in American politics.

But some African Americans don’t get it. Despite measurable advances over the past 30 years, they still perceive themselves as beleaguered, as the once and present victims of discrimination, struggling to keep pace with their white counterparts.

This portrait of a currently besieged people is mostly fiction — although it regained some currency during the campaign. The racial comments that were slung about, along with other experiences permanently lodged in the psyche of some African Americans, partly inspire the catalog of demands that awaits Obama.

“He needs to talk more about the race question and the relationship between blacks and whites, especially racism,” says Francis. Ronald Walters, director of the African American Leadership Center at the University of Maryland, argues that Obama must address the gap in health care between African Americans and whites. Poverty, support for small businesses, economic development, the three-strikes law and the “incarceration crisis” that has staggering rates of black males inhabiting the nation’s prisons are other pressing issues. The Community Reinvestment Act has to be rewritten, and Obama must reconsider the usefulness of enterprise zones as a tool for redeveloping inner-city neighborhoods. “There’s a complex of things,” says Walters.

This litany reads like the first and subsequent iterations of the National Urban League‘s annual “State of Black America” report or chapters in Tavis Smiley‘s “Covenant With Black America.” Add the wish that Obama strengthen affirmative action expressed by radio executive Gloria Minott, and the debate is circa 1975.

“Aren’t black people affected by gravity,” says Miller, meaning that no matter what the government does, these same demands are ever-present. Walters and others would probably disagree and could no doubt offer many reasons for the list’s permanence. But to me, it seems that these issues are continually recycled, repackaged and presented as new and original. Yet they’re as predictable as John McCain‘s war narrative, and like that story, they lose their power when repeated too often.

It’s not entirely clear yet how Obama will deal with all this. He has pledged to create an Office of Urban Policy in the White House. As a former community organizer who worked on Chicago’s South Side, he knows the problems in black America, but he isn’t likely to treat African Americans as victims. And a predominantly black Cabinet or staff doesn’t seem to be in the offing, either. He has already selected Rep. Rahm Emanuel, a former Clinton adviser, as his chief of staff.

But even if Obama reaches the Clinton bar — appointing a significant number of blacks, increasing black employment and generally improving black prosperity — it may not be enough. He may find himself in the same place as other black leaders of his class. Consider former Washington mayor Anthony A. Williams, who delivered services to low-income blacks far beyond what his predecessors had provided: a record number of affordable housing units, new supermarkets and retail shopping areas and health insurance for thousands. Yet he was nearly castrated by a segment of the black community. At one point, he was accused of trying to further enslave African Americans because he wanted to move the city’s only public university to a predominantly black neighborhood. His governing approach didn’t comport with that of “traditional black leaders” of the 1960s and ’70s.

Obama, too, “will have his detractors,” says Democratic pollster Ronald Lester. “A lot of those people will never be happy.”

But “we cannot move back into the black power movement,” adds Miller. “Obama represents a transformation of the American landscape.”

And that’s the point. If African Americans want to be taken seriously, they have to get with the program. Obama’s election isn’t just about a black president. It’s about a new America. The days of confrontational identity politics have come to an end. The era of coalition politics and collaboration has arrived. Besides, Obama could never be a Rev. Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton — something even they acknowledge.

“He ran the last leg of a 60-year tag race,” Jackson told me. “The wall is down now. Barack must build the bridge for the next generation.”

Meanwhile, many are buoyed by the possibility that he will change black America’s view of itself. Stephens hopes that his example will restore the “criterion of excellence in education” that her parents’ generation embraced. “We need to change the thinking of some kids that the only way they can make it is by singing, dancing and shooting hoops,” she says.

Adds Minott: “It’s about time we have a different meaning of what it means to be a black man and a black father.”

But “it’s not just the black male, it’s the family,” says Miller. “He’s giving us the whole image. Obama is a healing balm.”

These are lofty thoughts about what an Obama presidency might do for African Americans. But a major shift can’t occur unless African Americans — actually all Americans — submit to the changing dynamics. Instead of demanding another discussion about racism or clocking when the incarceration crisis appears on the radar, black Americans should work to sustain what Obama’s campaign set in motion. They should seek to hold together his coalition — reaching out to non-African Americans — and use it to drive a progressive agenda. Not a black agenda, but a human agenda.

Not long ago, African American author Charles Johnson noted that blacks have been too invested “in the pre-21st-century black American narrative,” and that we need “new and better stories, new concepts and new vocabularies and grammar based not on the past but on the dangerous, exciting and unexplored present.”

That present has now arrived. Jesse Jackson, one of the principal authors of the pre-21st-century narrative, understands this. Obama, he told me, “has removed the roof. If Barack can be president, then there ain’t nothing we can’t do.”

Obama’s real contribution is allowing blacks to see ourselves as victors. That’s more valuable to black advancement than any item on a pre-fabricated list of demands. Can I get an “Amen”?



Jonetta Rose Barras is a Washington author and political analyst.


Thursday, Nov. 06, 2008

What Obama’s Election Really Means to Black America

By Steven Gray / Chicago


Much of black America is still struggling to grasp the full meaning of Barack Obama’s election to the presidency. The overall mood is awash with pride but shaded with angst and the larger question: Now what?

On Wednesday, the Harvard University scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s celebratory post-election special. After learning the news, Gates says, “we jumped up, we wept, we hooped and hollered.” It is hard to overestimate the historical significance of the election of the first black U.S. President. For many blacks, and certainly for much of the country and world, Obama’s victory is an extraordinary step toward the redemption of America’s original 400-year-old sin. It is astonishing not least for its quickness, coming just 145 years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation effectively ending slavery and four decades after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. And it is even more astonishing for its decisiveness — Obama carried Virginia, once the home of the Confederacy, a place whose laws just five decades ago would have made the interracial union of his parents illegal. (See pictures of Barack Obama’s family tree.)

“Just a little more than 10 years ago,” Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin told TIME this week, “it was inconceivable to any of us that we would see an African American win a national party’s ticket and then compete effectively. It’s mind-boggling,” she continued, “how much this means about the opportunities available to all people — Asians, Latinos and other people who’ve historically been locked out of the system.” (See pictures of Election 2008 in the heart of the Civil Rights struggle.)

What is perhaps most surprising about many blacks’ support of Obama is that it was not immediate or easy. Many African Americans were initially skeptical about Obama’s candidacy, partly because they regarded him as somehow inauthentically black due to his upbringing in Hawaii and Indonesia, as well as his last name, which even the President-elect has described as “funny sounding.”

Black support of Obama soared after he won last winter’s Iowa caucuses. But there were moments in this campaign when Obama was forced to manage the issue of race deftly and explain the unexplainable to a largely white electorate. Consider the case of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. Obama joined Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago in the 1980s, when Obama was an obscure community organizer. Trinity gave Obama an entrée to the city’s thriving black middle class, and Obama came to view Wright in particular as a mentor. Yet earlier this year, Obama was compelled for political reasons to leave the church. The public criticism stemmed from controversial comments about the U.S. by Wright that proved too harsh to the ears of outsiders, many who are not aware of the nuances of the black religious-cultural experience, or of the fact that black churches have traditionally been a place for coping with the legacy of racism in this country. When Obama left Trinity, he suggested that the scrutiny he faced because of Wright’s sermons would follow him to whatever church he and his family chose to attend as the First Family. That will be especially true if the Obamas choose another traditional black church, where the rhetoric on matters of social policy and everyday life — not just on racism — may sound radical to much of the country.

See pictures of 60 years of election night drama.

See pictures of Barack Obama’s campaign behind the scenes.

Obama’s candidacy inspired scores of blacks like Michael Johnson, 33, to vote for the first time. At about noon on Nov. 4, Johnson showed up at his Gary, Ind., polling station to cast his vote. But he was turned away. The reason: his name appeared on a list of people who had already cast absentee votes. Johnson left the station dismayed. He spent the next five hours driving across Lake County, Ind., sorting out the mess with election authorities in Crown Point, the county’s seat, before eventually returning to the Gary polling station. He says the polling station’s managers applauded when they saw him. “They didn’t think I was coming back,” the hotel dishwasher said late Tuesday. “But this election was just too important for me to miss.” (See pictures from the historic Election Day.)

Meanwhile, Barbara Gray, 65, a retiree who is also from Gary, said she voted for Obama partly because she hoped he would take interest in improving conditions in urban areas — like Obama’s adopted hometown neighborhood, Hyde Park, a leafy Chicago enclave surrounded by some of the city’s bleakest communities. She said Obama may be the first President with a firsthand understanding of life in neighborhoods like hers. Gray said she wants the basics: cracked sidewalks repaved, enough funding so that largely black and Latino urban public schools can compete with the predominately white schools in affluent suburbs. “Just look around,” she said on Election Day, pointing to a long row of blighted buildings along one of Gary’s main boulevards, Broadway Street. “There’s 101 things that need to be done.” (See the next President’s to-do list.)

In an interview with TIME this week, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said that Obama’s election “shows that there’s nothing else we can’t be. There’s no university we can’t be seriously considered to lead. There’s no bank we can’t be considered in if we have the right credentials.”

There’s no doubting that Obama’s candidacy represents the shattering of many of the racial barriers that have long been entrenched in America. But it is also worth tempering those expectations. Standing in the crisp breeze along Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, on the night of Obama’s election, Freddie Arnett, a 51-year-old maintenance supervisor, expressed hope that Obama would show concern for urban affairs. But Arnett acknowledged, “I know it’s going to take time.”

Shortly after Obama’s election, a throng of people stood outside the Chicago headquarters of two of the country’s leading chronicles of black life, Jet and Ebony magazines, and beamed at a row of covers featuring Barack and Michelle Obama.

“Our country is showing its forward evolution, that the color of one’s skin cannot inhibit one’s ability, and that’s worthy of celebration,” said Corey Booker, mayor of Newark, N.J.

See pictures of the world reacting to Obama’s win.

See pictures of Barack Obama’s campaign behind the scenes.

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