The Republic of T.

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The Two-ness of Being Barack Obama, Pt. 2

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series The Two-ness of Being Barack Obama

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.

W.E.B. DuBois — “The Souls of Black Folks”

The outcome of the Massachusetts special election makes one thing clear: It is time for President Obama to embrace his inner angry black man.

These words will no doubt as offensive to some as were Harry Reid’s words about then candidate Obama. They are also just as true concerning President Obama as Reid’s were of candidate Obama. They must be heeded if the president hopes to accomplish his agenda.

Returning to Reid’s comments and the ensuing controversy, a question comes to mind — the same that came to mind in the wake of Jimmy the Greek’s unfortunate comments. In Reid’s case, however, the question is much more appropriate: What exactly did Reid say that was untrue?

The authors quote Reid as saying privately that Obama, as a black candidate, could be successful thanks, in part, to his “light-skinned” appearance and speaking patterns “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”

“He [Reid] was wowed by Obama’s oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama — a ‘light-skinned’ African American ‘with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,’ ” Halperin and Heilemann say.

“Reid was convinced, in fact, that Obama’s race would help him more than hurt him in a bid for the Democratic nomination,” they write.

In a statement to CNN, Reid said, “I deeply regret using such a poor choice of words.”
“I sincerely apologize for offending any and all Americans, especially African Americans for my improper comments.

Reid had been chastised and has chastised himself for a “poor choice of words.”

Again, there’s nothing incorrect in what Reid said. In fact there’s nothing offensive in what he said, because it’s not offensive if it’s true. Some people might be offended that he even brought up the subject, because of what it implies about race in America, where actual racist statements often get a pass if prefaced with “Not that I’m racist…”

If Reid’s comments were offensive at all, it was merely the offense of failing to maintain the polite fiction about race in America.

Polite fiction refers to a social scenario in which all participants are aware of a truth, but pretend to believe in some alternative version of events to avoid conflict or embarrassment. Polite fictions are closely related to euphemism, in which a word or phrase that might be impolite, disagreeable, or offensive is replaced by another word or phrase that both speaker and listener understand to have the same meaning. In scholarly usage, “polite fiction” can be traced to at least 1953.[1]

Polite fictions can slip into denial. This is especially the case when the fiction is actually meant to fool some observers, such as outsiders or children judged too young to be told the truth. The truth then becomes “the elephant in the room”; no matter how obvious it is, the people most affected pretend to others and to themselves that it isn’t so. Again, this can be used to humorous effect in comedy, where a character will seem bent on working overtime to make it possible to maintain the polite fiction.

In other words, it is the equivalent of daring to mention that someone broke wind in room full of people who are perfectly aware of it (they have noses, after all), but are far too polite to ever think about mentioning out loud what is as plain as the noses on their faces.

It may even be a polite fiction that Reid’s “poor choice of words” was what caused the controversy, when perhaps that they were said by someone who looks like Reid was a significant cause of the ruckus. But since Reid and others (including Obama) have mentioned his “unfortunate choice of words,” allow me to state it more plainly than Harry Reid could ever get away with.

If Barack Obama looked like Flava Flav and sounded like … well … Jesse Jackson, there is no chance he’d have even had a shot at becoming president. Even the conservatives who are cynically making hay out of the whole thing know that. Reid knew it. I guarantee you that Obama knew it, in the same way that millions of African Americans know it’s true.

But Reid’s comments have prompted another discussion, one that is focused on what Reid actually said, rather than the politics – was the senator right?

Many prominent African Americans who spoke to ABC News today were offended by Reid’s use of the word “Negro.” But they also said his observation was true – that Americans in general find lighter-skinned African Americans more socially acceptable than those with darker skin, especially if they speak eloquently.

“As an African American who is light skinned with so called curly hair, that represents my proximity to white culture. I am treated far differently than African American people with natural hair, and darker skin,” said Michael Eric Dyson, professor of sociology at Georgetown University.

Retired Gen. Colin Powell has said that among the reasons for his success among whites are that “I speak reasonably well, like a white person” and “I aren’t that black.”

There is empirical evidence that both Dyson and Powell are right. Numerous studies indicate that lighter skinned blacks are more likely than dark skinned blacks to be elected to public office and be hired for jobs.

There is also empirical evidence that many white Americans have difficulty distinguishing between angry and non-angry black men.

A research team led by psychologist Jenessa Shapiro of the University of California, Los Angeles conducted a preliminary study and three experiments to determine whether whites are more likely to perceive facial expressions as threatening if the face in question belongs to an African-American male. Their disturbing results are detailed in their paper “Following in the Wake of Anger,” which was published online Tuesday in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

In the key experiment, 36 white American college students viewed an online slide show in which pairs of faces appeared on a screen in succession. All were of men between 18 and 35 years of age. The first face had either an angry or a neutral expression; the second had a neutral expression. Participants were asked to rate each in terms of how threatening the person came across, on a scale of one to nine.

When an angry white male face was paired with a white male face wearing a neutral expression, the second, neutral face was judged as less-threatening. However, this entirely logical result did not hold when the two faces in question were black.

And there is empirical evidence that “baby-faced” black men are less threatening to whites, and as a result are more successful than many their less aesthetically-endowed brethren.

Black Fortune 500 CEOs with a “babyface” appearance are more likely to lead companies with higher revenues and prestige than black CEOs who look more mature, an upcoming study says.

In contrast with research showing that white executives are hindered by babyface characteristics, a disarming appearance can help black CEOs by counteracting the stigma that black men are threatening, according to the study from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

The article goes on to add:

That leads to the idea that black executives face a double standard, he said.
“If you’re a white male, you can exhibit anger, pound your fist, make ultimatums … African-Americans have to adopt a kinder, gentler style of leadership,”
Livingston said. “The same sorts of behaviors that are effective for white males can’t be utilized effectively by black males.”

After all, in our society, anger is a privilege not granted minorities, especially model minorities like the Non-Threatening Black Man (NTBM).

I’ve notice something. No one seems to seems to question whether the angry white men that swept Newt Gingrich and the Republican majority into power in 1994 were justified in their anger. It’s assumed that whatever they’re angry about they have a right to be angry about.

But not so for the so called “angry black women.” Their anger is somehow less “real” and less justified. Perhaps that that’s because being angry is a privilege in this culture. Anger, if you are a minority, is dangerous. If you are a woman, or a person of color, gay, etc., your movements must be calm, your voice must be modulated, and your anger must ever show.

Joy is permitted. You may sing, dance, and celebrate in your joy. It is a performance, sometimes a command performance, demanded of you even in the midst of despair. Suffering is permitted. It, too, is familiar and non-threatening. It can even be reaffirming to those looking upon it; reaffirming of their power and privilege. Sadness is permitted. You are allowed to mourn, and to moan, keen, and cry in your mourning. Fear is permitted. Your fear — wide-eyed screaming or stunned silence — is familiar, and recognizable.

You are allowed all of the above, especially in response to another’s more “real” anger, but not your own anger. Anger implies entitlement — to material goods, to power and privilege, or a certain kind of treatment. Anger implies a right to expect something, and is a justifiable response to not receiving one’s due. And you aren’t due that which you’d have a right to be angry about having been denied.

The double standard is plainly seen in the anger openly displayed by conservatives during and after the campaign.

And despite McCain campaign’s the outright lies and apparently blindness to the racism displayed by their supporters, anger was a privilege not afforded the African American Democratic nominee, who couldn’t get angry during the campaign, a condition our African American chief executive seems to have carried over from the campaign to the oval office.

As much as we want Obama to go off on McCain, angry black men don’t become president.

… But if Obama wants to get elected president of the United States, getting mad is the last thing he can afford to do. He may be the Democrats’ standard bearer, but he is still—as the McCain camp consistently points out with their unsubtle “not like you” messaging—a black man.

This is a struggle that black men—especially those of us who work in professional settings and want to remain there—grapple with daily: Showing our anger, no matter how justified, is a death sentence. We feel outrage. We want to say and demonstrate our daily frustrations, but we don’t dare because we know that the release of our pent-up emotions can’t ever be explained after the fact.

And so it goes for Obama in his quest for the highest prize in all of America. We won’t know whether the nation is ready to cast aside enough historic prejudices to elect a qualified, smart, articulate and family-oriented black president until after all the votes are cast. For the first time in U.S. history, the possibility exists.

But, let me assure you, there’s no need to hold the vote if Obama blows his stack before then. It might satisfy some Obama supporters to see him put McCain-Palin in their places, call them out John Wayne-style and pummel them into submission. For a quick, exhilarating minute, it would feel like the 21st century equivalent of Joe Louis’ 1936 knockout of Nazi Germany’s Max Schmeling.

But it would be political suicide.

The problem is that what Obama had to project as a candidate does not serve him well if he is to govern effectively. In fact it may be political suicide for Obama to maintain the NTBM persona that helped him get elected.

In 1992, one of Bill Clinton’s greatest assets was that voters believed he “felt their pain,” in the throes of a recession his seemed not even to recognize. We are in the middle of a financial crisis that has caused a great deal of economic pain to every day, working Americans — a pain that is reflected in the gloomy statistics on joblessness and foreclosures, and the increasing number of Americans facing poverty and hunger.

But that economic pain is mingled with anger that grows with each day of increasing economic carnage and body counts on Main Street that’s accompanied by a perverse kind of “inverted socialism,” in which their tax dollars are marshaled to save the very individuals and institutions responsible for the crisis that continues to squeeze middle and working class Americans.

From each according to his need, to each according to his greed. It pains me to say it, because I voted for him, manned phone banks for him, and gave to his campaign, but Obama (in truly flabbergasting cahoots with Goldman Sachs, the Citibank alumni club, and the jet-setting Ivy-League long-range-thinking all stars who love to convene at Aspen, Davos, Sun Valley and other ritzy spas and ski resorts to discuss, over cocktails, the global common good) has managed to perfect, in just one year, an ingenious socioeconomic system that might be called “inverted socialism” and which makes the free-market conservatism it succeeded seem, by comparison, principled and simple.

As though he believes that the best way to redress a ruinous, massive private-sector theft is to rehabilitate the thieves by putting them to work as Cabinet members and high-ranking public policy officials, Obama has licensed the bungling robber barons who managed to gamble away the loot amassed in their attempt to fleece the world to recoup their squandered booty by “borrowing” from the taxpayers and homeowners (lots of them former homeowners by now) the money that they failed to grab the first time — and then lending, with interest, the borrowings back to them.

But that’s just abomination No. 1 from this year-long experiment in reverse-progressivism that no new belated “tax” on Wall Street fortunes can hope to render more acceptable.

The Brown victory ought to make it clear to the Obama administration and Democratic leadership that the increasing anger “outside of the beltway” is because people hear reports of trillions of dollars being doled out in hopes of heading off economic disaster, but they see no tangible improvements in their communities.

The bailout may or may not have save us from an even worse economic nightmare that may or may not have ensued otherwise. But when people a being ground down on a daily basis by the economic downturn, while being told of a recovery that remains just out of their reach, it is all but impossible to win their support by telling them how much worse things could have been otherwise.

In fact, you can’t win them over at all if there is no evidence that you even hear let alone understand or share their concerns. If Obama is to recover from the Massachusetts debacle, Americans must understand that he and his party hear, understand and share their concerns — and their anger.

The suggested tax on Wall Street bonuses, the $90 billion financial crisis responsibility fee, and the latest proposal to limit the size of big banks, are encouraging. But in the weeks and months to come, Obama must finally display a willingness to fight for the principles he campaigned on.

So, is all that is left of those moments a year ago on the Capitol steps – when nothing less than the rebirth of American governance seemed in the offing – just the presidential grandiloquence, to which the word “empty” is now being habitually attached? Have the Democrats displayed, yet again, their unmatched talent for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory?

You heard it here first. The correct answer, counter to the new conventional wisdom, is no. The 44th president is on the mat, but anyone counting him out has not taken his measure. It is just that he may actually need to respond to the unrelenting pressure from zombie conservatism, ravenously flesh-eating and never quite dead, not by turning on more consensual charm, but by taking the gloves off. With his bank levy– “We want our money back,” he said – Mr Obama has belatedly begun to fight. Whether he can trade enough punches with the right before the November mid-term elections remains to be seen, but my hunch is that President Composure is up for a brawl.

In any event, reports of the death of the Obama presidency may turn out to be premature. If the Democrats are starting to panic they need to get over it fast. A Republican opposition committed to nothing more than congressional paralysis during a time of national crisis risks being stigmatised by polemically skilful presidents as the party of obstruction. Ronald Reagan used that tactic against a Democratic Congress to powerful effect. If Mr Obama has what it takes politically – which remains the great question hanging over his White House – he can make Republican crowing its own worst enemy, type-casting the opposition as selfishly unpatriotic. It has happened before. Following a Republican triumph in the mid-terms of 1994, the party over-reached in its campaign against Bill Clinton’s presidency, shutting down the federal government. The result was a decisive re-election for Mr Clinton just a year later. But whichever way the election in Massachusetts goes there can be no doubt that a battle for allegiance will have to be joined if Mr Obama is to recover his freedom of action.

If President Obama is to “recover his freedom action,” and revive the hope fueled support for his candidacy, he must finally banish the “non-threatening black man” who ran for office, and embrace his role not merely as the country’s first African American president, but his place as the man won the nation’s highest office and in whom so many have invested their hopes for a better, more just future for their country, their communities, and their families.

Covering anger with non-confrontational charm and conciliation has long been a survival mechanism for African American men, and one occasionally reinforced by vivid reminders of the price for behaving otherwise. But it is a strategy that often preserved life in the short term at the expense of justice in the long run.

It is not a place of strength in a time when anger is justified, and threats (as well as the will to carry them out if need be) are necessary to achieve and preserve justice.

In that sense, perhaps Obama doesn’t need to embrace his inner angry black man, so much as he need to embrace is role as the president who hears, understands, and shared American’s concerns and anger at the status quo, and delivers real results to address both.

In other words, Obama must stop behaving like the historic African American candidate, or the first African American president must be non-threatening in order to be popular and well liked. Instead he must become simply the president, and the one that people elected him to be, who sometimes has to get angry and be willing to fight if he is to be effective.


Series NavigationThe Two-ness of Being Barack Obama, Pt. 1.

One Comment

  1. “After all, in our society, anger is a privilege not granted minorities,”
    Sadly, this is true even as we speak today. It is true of homosexuals and Moslems.
    As a 75 year old homosexual I am not allowed the privilege of being angry for all these years of real persecution. At least, no anger that I am allowed to demonstrate. As a Catholic priest, I was dismissed in 1978 for having ministered to the homosexual community, and it was demanded that I suffer this with no show of anger or resentment. I have found that it is a terrible thing to keep anger penned up in one’s heart for years.

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