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The New York Sun


The Upside of Obama

October 26, 2006

By John H. McWhorter

"White America tends to see some black people as white. Its [sic] an escape hatch for racism that prevents the racist from seeing himself as racist. Barack Obama is one of those black people."

That's a reader response to a New York Times piece in the wake of the Obamamania of late. It's the kind of thing that leaves me numb to the notion that Mr. Obama would be a good president by being some symbol of unity. Rooted in emotional needs, oppositional politics can be impervious to experience. This includes shoring up an exaggerated vision of racism and its significance—including when one is white. Nothing Mr. Obama was, did, or said could reach these people.

That said, like everybody, I have been finding more and more to like about him. I like that he is a thinking person. I like that he is good at rubbing a noun and a verb together. Often black people are termed "articulate" whose verbal skills would elicit no comment if they were white, but Mr. Obama actually is bracingly adept with words.

But the unity part? It still makes me itch. And yet, I have come to realize that an Obama presidency could be special—but not in the way we're usually told.

This first occurred to me after some responses to another column I wrote on Mr. Obama, from people (of various hues) who read me as condemning him as ungifted. That is neither what I meant nor what I wrote, but what was interesting was how livid these people were over the perceived slight. I cannot imagine such fury at my (purportedly) criticizing, say, John Edwards some years ago.

Mr. Obama's skin color, apparently, makes a lot of people sense it as deeply uncharitable, as one respondent to that previous column put it, to speak his name in vain. Paul Krugman, for instance, disinclined to join the Barack Bandwagon, referred elliptically to an unnamed "attractive presidential candidate who speaks in uplifting generalities." Very coy for Mr. Krugman, and for a reason.

And what this kid-glove approach to Mr. Obama could mean is that as president, he might be exempt from the particularly feverish pitch of recreational hostility from the commentariat that has become so fashionable these days. One need not be a Pollyanna to imagine that Republicans would even turn down the slime machine a few notches for Mr. Obama, out of a pragmatic reluctance to seem "racist."

Oh, there'd be potshots aplenty, but not with the pitiless brutality aimed at President Bush or John Kerry. Condoleezza Rice comes to mind—sharply criticized, but not burned daily in effigy with Inquisitional zeal. Gender is not the key factor here: Hillary Clinton and Ann Coulter get no pass. Condi gets half of one out of a sense that it might be racist to ride on her too hard.

What would be truly sweet about Mr. Obama having this kind of built-in protection is that there is an approaching tipping point in the battle against inner-city poverty that would happen during the time he was in office. To the extent that his race made our chattering classes somewhat less comfortable indulging in the cheap thrills of confrontational invective about the commander in chief, they would be in a position to help turn what is now a diffuse movement into a Zeitgeist.

Here's what's up: One thing that most holds poor black communities back is men returning from long prison terms with little education or work experience and with massive back payments for child support discouraging them from seeking legal work. Of 300,000 prisoners released in 1994, just a year later, almost half (44%) had been arrested, and one in 10 was back behind bars. Two years after that, one in four was in prison. Their children, meanwhile, grow up poor, fatherless, and likely to become like their parents.

Across the nation, state governments and foundations are developing effective new programs helping ex-cons into productive lives. A program in Allegheny County, Pa., for example, saw in 2003 a mere 7% of its clients arraigned after a year.

Yet another plus in Mr. Obama, in fact, is that he is part of taking this movement national, in the Responsible Fatherhood and Healthy Families Act bill he has co-sponsored with Senator Bayh. It would provide low-income fathers with job training and placement, as well as force them to pay child support—but assist them in this by raising their earned income tax credit.

Imagine: The president's pretty color dilutes the punditocracy's instinct for calisthenically abusive speculations about his moral character, leaving the pundits with free mental disk space to focus on one of his civic commitments, the evolution of innercity communities into stable working-class ones. This creates a new sensibility that culminates in a bestselling equivalent to "Silent Spring," "The Feminine Mystique," or "Unsafe At Any Speed"—or today, perhaps a hit cinema documentary—imprinting the urgency and possibility of inner-city rebirth as a core issue in American life.

I'm agnostic as to whether this would "bring the nation together." It does, however, make me value Mr. Obama for what color he is—if only through the back door.

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