Some have asked me recently what I think about the slew of white journalists who are all calling for Barack Obama to behave more like a black president. Maureen Dowd of the New York Times said that Obama doesn’t have enough black people in his cabinet to relate to a genuine black experience. Bill Maher tried to put a comedic twist on the issue by arguing that a black president would pull a gun off his hip to confront the BP executives with death threats. Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post recently argued that Obama doesn’t show the kind of emotion that Americans expect to see from their first black president.
Everyone seems to feel justified in defining what it means for a black politician to have a “genuine black experience.” For some reason, individuals like Barack Obama and Valerie Jarrett are not authentic enough. Another disturbing dimension of this dialogue is that everyone seems to expect President Obama to be Ike Turner or Joe Jackson, rather than the kind of mild-mannered black man that gets ahead in America.
The problem with such assessments, whether they are made by whites or blacks, is that there is no such thing as an authentic black experience. That’s as absurd as saying that there is a singular authentic and realistic white experience. Sure, many white Americans have a few things in common, but their perspectives can be quite diverse. When one believes that every black man or woman is supposed to think and behave in the same way, you are disrespecting our humanity.
Let’s start from the beginning and say this: President Obama is certainly black enough to be a black man. It’s just that he happens to be a latte-sipping, Harvard-educated, liberal black man. My father, on the other hand, is a meat and potatoes, conservative, working-class, black man. To argue that either of these men are not black enough would be silly. Obama will never be the kind of politician my father can appreciate, since he thinks his health care plan is socialist. So, adding my dad to Obama’s cabinet just because he’s black would make us worse off than electing Sarah Palin.
With regard to whether or not white journalists are qualified to evaluate the blackness of Obama’s advisors, it really depends on who you ask. Maher’s inability to evaluate Obama’s blackness stems from the fact that his perception of African-Americans is one that is laced with dysfunctional behavior and criminal activity. Clearly, the man who once dated Karrine “Superhead” Steffans, a woman known for sleeping with a lot of rappers, is psychologically-wired to notice the seedy elements of hip-hop culture. Perhaps Maher might expect Obama to bust a rap or go to prison in order to prove that he’s black enough.
With regard to Dowd’s assessment of the blackness of Obama’s cabinet, two thoughts come to mind: First, it is sad that a white female is the only one empowered enough to speak on the lack of minority presence in the Obama Administration with a voice that is audible and respected. This is the benefit of white privilege in America, since there aren’t nearly enough black writers working for the New York Times. Secondly, it suggests that Dowd herself feels qualified to be able to assess what a “legitimate” black experience happens to be. I’m not sure if she is qualified for this job or not, but Dowd is certainly entitled to her opinion.
One added and important point in favor of Dowd is that she is correct in her assessment of the Obama administration’s inability and lack of desire to address racial issues. Perhaps rather than using the color of the president’s skin as a proxy for their sensitivity to African-American concerns, she can evaluate the actions of the leader to understand what lies within their conscience.
One way in which America has certainly become “post-racial” is that in some cases, the politician with the black face can be the one who is most destructive to his community. Obama himself is not a destructive force in black America, but his presence in the White House is a distraction that causes our government to become unusually silent on matters related to race. The decision to overlook significant issues affecting the black community in order to have a black face in the Oval Office might come back to haunt us. Only history will tell us if we were right.