Prospect – by Trevor Phillips – March 2008 edition
Let me confess to a pinprick of irritation at the emergence of Barack Obama as the first truly credible non-white candidate for president of the US. To begin with, there’s the problem of wearily having to answer my white friends’ plaintive question each time a significant black figure shoots across the American firmament: “Why can’t we have a British Obama (or Martin Luther King or Malcolm X or Oprah Winfrey)?” The implied challenge to black Britons in public life is: why can’t you be more like him/her?
The answer is simple. At a personal level, few people are as charismatic, capable and ruthless as this mixed-race political phenomenon. And anyone can do the maths: the black British population is proportionately one sixth the size of the black US population, so it’s hardly surprising that black Britons don’t produce the same range of talents.
But there’s history too. British whites don’t carry the stain of transatlantic slavery in the personal way that US whites do, and as a result race—specifically anti-black racism—does not play the same part in our story. Black Britons can’t bring centuries of white guilt to bear with the devastating impact that African-Americans have done for two generations. For the most part, we have been here for less than 60 years. British whites distanced themselves from the historic crime that still torments America long before we arrived. Few Britons ever owned slaves here; the blood remained on hands thousands of miles away. Britain’s black population is probably better compared to some of the less successful Latino communities of the US southwest.
There’s also a part of me that feels indignant on behalf of my Caribbean slave ancestors. Many of the big figures in African-American political history had Caribbean roots—Marcus Garvey (Jamaica), Malcolm X (Trinidad), Sidney Poitier (Bahamas). Yet a man whose African ancestors never endured transatlantic slavery has become the standard-bearer for the black presence in the US. Unlike most of us, Obama is able to trace his black ancestors back to Kenya through his father, and his white forebears through his mother to Ireland. But as the black conservative writer Shelby Steele suggests in his new book on Obama, A Bound Man, that is just what makes him so successful. Steele’s subtitle—Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win—may appear to have been negated by Obama’s run in the primaries. The junior senator from Illinois, it seems, stands every chance of taking out the Clintons and then going on to beat John McCain.
But Steele isn’t talking about the elections. He is addressing the question of whether Obama represents a fundamental change in America. Many are desperate to believe. For whites, Obama as president would be the living proof that America truly has left the past behind. For blacks, on the other hand, Obama is simply another prophet offering true emancipation—another Garvey, King or Jesse Jackson. Yet Steele’s contention is that Obama is a kind of Greek tragedy in the making. The very thing that makes him the first person of his kind has “bound” him to failure: if he fulfils the hopes of whites, he must disappoint blacks—and vice versa.
Steele’s analysis is smart. If we discount the usual cod psychology—Obama’s “search” for his wayward and faithless Kenyan academic father—the thesis is simple. There are, Steele says, two kinds of influential black figures in US public life. The “challengers”—Garvey, Malcolm X, Jackson—wield power by making whites feel guilty about the old crime and only allowing the guilt to be relieved in return for concessions of one kind or another: a project here, a political sinecure there. Challengers point to the success of the much-touted, but somewhat overestimated, black middle class, many of whom benefited from affirmative action programmes (as Obama did) that gave them places at top universities (Columbia and Harvard in his case) and prestigious law firms.
The problem for the challengers is that their ambitions are necessarily limited to piecemeal concessions. They can only wield power as long as they remain victims—downtrodden and excluded. The moment they succeed, they lose the power of moral suasion.
Steele identifies another, more successful group, which he calls “bargainers.” These are black leadership figures who strike quite a different deal by saying to white America: “I will not use America’s horrible history of white racism against you, if you will promise not to use my race against me.” That way, everybody wins; whites feel flattered and win back what Steele calls their “racial innocence.” Blacks acquire freedom from the cage of their colour. Starting with Louis Armstrong, a series of black icons have sustained a brilliant crossover bargain: Poitier, King, Bill Cosby and, quintessentially, Oprah Winfrey. Both they and America have prospered from it.
Obama is a natural bargainer. Steele recounts the story of how he dealt with the arrest of a high school buddy for drugs. Obama’s (white) mother marched into his room demanding details. According to Obama’s own account, he gave her “a reassuring smile, and patted her hand and told her not to worry.” This, he wrote, was “usually an effective tactic” because people “were satisfied so long as you were courteous and smiled and made no sudden moves… such a pleasant surprise to find a well-mannered young black man who didn’t seem angry all the time.”
From Europe, all this is puzzling. It is almost impossible unless you’ve experienced it to grasp how profoundly race shapes everyday encounters in the US. To take one example, when African-Americans watch television in the evenings, they are watching a different America to whites. For the past 20 years the ratings have shown that the top 20 shows in white, black and Hispanic households rarely have more than two or three titles in common.
For white America, this separation makes the guilt associated with slavery an everyday reality. But if Obama can succeed, then maybe they can imagine that King’s post-racial nirvana has arrived. A vote for Obama is a pain-free negation of their own racism. (So long as they don’t have to live next door to him; Obama has yet to win convincingly in white districts adjacent to black communities. While winning in still-segregated South Carolina, he lost in states where blacks and whites are more likely to share offices and public transport—New York, California.)
For the black underclass and beyond Obama may be the latest messiah, but there is anecdotal evidence that where blacks have prospered to the extent that they are grimly competing for jobs and property with whites, they don’t buy “Obamania.” I would guess that this is because the people who actually experience just how far America remains from post-racial harmony are those blacks who work with whites.
Steele’s argument is that in the end Obama cannot win, because the gap between his promise of an America free of the racial divide and the reality of a nation still riven by colour-coded inequality remains too great. I think that he is partly right. Where his essay fails is in the narrowness of its analysis. He repeats the idea that black failure is principally down to the absence of black responsibility—a cultural failure—and downplays the impact of globalisation on poor communities.
And he has missed the biggest shift of all, which may work to Obama’s political advantage without having any impact on racial inequality. It is in fact another tall, charismatic, non-white who looks likely to dislodge the black/white divide from its dominant position in US public life. On 9/11, Osama bin Laden created a new “other.” In the face of this threat, America may just decide that it is time to heal the age-old fracture. In a sense, what victory for Obama may establish is that blacks just aren’t what they used to be—and that placating them isn’t that important any more. What the tens of millions who hope that his ascent will lift them out of the ghetto will make of that once they realise it, one can only imagine.
The true scale of the problem for black leadership in the US is demonstrated by the fate of the most significant, and tragic, figure in Steele’s book. Bill Cosby was once so big that he could force US television networks to do his bidding. Cosby, as Steele says, was a classic bargainer; The Cosby Show was the television show of the 1980s; he and his oh-so-cute black family offered America racial innocence. In recent years, Cosby has toured the country emphasising the theme of black responsibility, insisting that black children speak proper English, attacking the bling-bling rappers and entreating black men not to abandon their kids. All good stuff; yet today he cuts a sad and lonely figure, because he abandoned the moral weapon wielded by both bargainers and the challengers by insisting that in the end, salvation for blacks won’t depend on the actions of whites.
No one wants to know that; Obama least of all. And herein lies the problem. Both challengers and bargainers offer a strategy that needs the racial divide to stay at the centre of US life. In truth, Obama may be helping to postpone the arrival of a post-racial America, and I think he knows it. If he wins, the cynicism may be worth it to him and his party. In the end he is a politician and a very good one; his job is to win elections. He may even beat Hillary to the nomination (though I’d be surprised). But the harbinger of a post-racial America? I don’t think so. Obama’s boosters compare him with JFK (see below). But I think he has a more recent role model, whose charm, skill and ruthless cynicism he may come to emulate. I’m talking, of course, of William Jefferson Clinton.