Is He Black Enough
The latest turn in the Barack Obama for president circus is a sideshow focusing on how well he will do with African American voters. The assumption is that African Americans will overwhelmingly rally around Obama just because he is Black. Of course, any evidence to the contrary is a story worth covering and the coyness with which some prominent African American leaders have responded to queries about their support or endorsements of Obama has caused a mini fury. The media’s fixation on this issue centers on one question: Is Barack Obama Black enough to win the lion’s share of Black votes? While the “Black enough” question is silly and can be seen as an insult to African Americans because it suggests that only certain kinds of Blacks can represent other African Americans, the truth is that it may be a legitimate concern for the top tier Democratic candidates. If Obama can’t nail down his “base,” then he can’t be a serious contender.
Many Black leaders are being evasive about endorsing Obama. They don’t want to be accused of simply “going with the Black guy.” They may also have legitimate concerns about Obama and his lack of experience. Some may also have a stronger feeling about another candidate such as senator Hilary Clinton or former senator and 2004 vice presidential nominee John Edwards, both of whom have serious ties to the Black community. Of course, there are some Black leaders who are turned off by Obama’s educational pedigree and multi-racial background and, thusly, don’t think he can aggressively represent Black interests. For them, Columbia and Harvard universities are not the stuff of “real” Blacks.
This isn’t the first time Obama has had to deal with questions about his political-racial purity. During his first run for Congress in 2000, his opponent, incumbent Representative Bobby Rush, employed a well-worn tactic among entrenched Black incumbents: He suggested that his opponent wasn’t “Black enough” to represent the voters of the district. Rush won and Obama continued to serve in the state senate.
Other Black candidates have used this unseemly tactic against fellow African Americans. Washington, D.C. mayor Marion Barry used it against Patricia Roberts Harris in his successful 1982 reelection campaign. Congressman Earl Hilliard tried it also, albeit unsuccessfully, in his 2002 race against Artur Davis. This “Blacker-than-thou” politics plays on social class, is fraught with danger, and is the unfortunate by-product of the quest to keep power and influence by any means. While unfortunate, it is no surprise that questions are now being asked about Obama.
There is a curious irony to the “Black enough” whispering that the nationalist wing of Black America has to confront. If Obama isn’t Black enough, then who is among the announced candidates? Hillary Clinton? Tom Vilsack? Joe Biden? Chris Dodd? This is where things get tricky because the only candidate who has given much voice to the kinds of issues of particular interest to African Americans is a White man: Edwards. He may well be the candidate who best represents Black interests. Wouldn’t that be ironic? And wouldn’t that pose problems for Black America?
© Michael K. Fauntroy, Ph.D.