The Color Of His Skin

John Mcwhorter, New York Sun, September 21, 2006

Imagine him white.

Barack Obama, that is. Amidst all the glowing talk about the possibility of his becoming America’s first black president in 2008, it’s an interesting thought experiment to imagine whether Mr. Obama would elicit this swooning buzz if he were white.

That is, let’s imagine a white guy with all of Mr. Obama’s pluses: crinkly smile, sincere concern for the little man, fine speech a couple of years ago about bringing the nation together, a certain charisma, wrote a touching autobiography. Let’s call him Barrett O’Leary.

I do not think Mr. O’Leary would be touted a year-and-change into his Senate appointment as a presidential possibility. No knock on Mr. Obama intended, mind you. For all we know, he could have the genius for national statesmanship of a Disraeli. The point is that we don’t know yet. Like any new senator, Mr. Obama has been quietly learning his way around the byzantine procedures of Senate lawmaking.

The key factor that galvanizes people around the idea of Obama for president is, quite simply, that he is black. Other things about him don’t hurt, but that’s all—they are not the deciding factor. Take away Mr. Obama’s race and he’s some relatively anonymous rookie. Barrett O’Leary, even if as cute and articulate as Mr. Obama, would have to wait at least another four years, and possibly six or seven, before being considered as a possible commander in chief.

What gives people a jolt in their gut about the idea of President Obama is the idea that it would be a ringing symbol that racism no longer rules our land. President Obama might be, for instance, a substitute for that national apology for slavery that some consider so urgent. Surely a nation with a black president would be one no longer hung up on race.

Or not. Mr. Obama is being considered as presidential timber not despite his race, but because of it. That is, for all of its good intentions, a dehumanization of Mr. Obama. We’re still hung up. What Mr. Obama has done is less important than his skin color and what it “means.” The content of our character is not exactly center stage here. We are a long way from Selma, but not yet where the Rev. King wanted us to be.

Another reason for my lack of enthusiasm for Mr. Obama as symbol is that the racial healing many might see him as portending would not happen. Among a certain kind of black person and non-black fellow travelers—roughly, those given to surmising that the levees near the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans were deliberately blown up—the going wisdom would be that Mr. Obama was elected only because he is merely the kind of black person whites are “comfortable” with.

With his light skin, African father and white mother, and only faint hint of what I call a “black-ccent”—the subtle vocal quality that makes most black Americans identifiable as black over the phone (yes, one can “sound black.” It’s been demonstrated repeatedly by linguistic analysis, and the “black-ccent” overlaps only partially with white Southern)—Mr. Obama would easily be cast by these types as “not too black.”

The kind of person these people see as “really black” are ones like, say, Spike Lee, who view white America warily as an alternate universe (Mr. Lee considers the levee-bombing a viable possibility, for example).

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