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Forbes

 

Obama And The Black Elite

January 21, 2009

By John H. McWhorter

All the president's people.

I noticed something about our moment Monday when I was on "Talk of the Nation" on NPR. I was there as the usual "con" person on affirmative action. (Not that con—I just think it should be about class rather than race.) But the "pro" who was on with me trotted out the line that racial preferences are crucial in university admissions because they allow black students to make connections critical to succeeding in later life.

Generally I respond to this by noting how few prosperous, famous blacks went to Ivy League schools. It's a fact: Not Oprah, not Spike Lee, not Richard Parsons.

Yet it occurred to me that these days we have been paying especial attention to successful black people who did happen to go to Ivy schools. Now, when people do the "connections" rant, they have a new crop of black celebrities to refer to. It's a more powerful rhetorical move than it was back in the day.

It's not just the Obamas but the "Obama people"—the couple's circle of associates—whose current prominence, I suspect, will render obsolete the amazement of so many that there exists a robust "black bourgeoisie." (Recall the surprise among the commentariat when Stephen Carter's book The Emperor of Ocean Park came out some years ago.)

As it happens, I watched Barack Obama sworn in at a New York party of black people of the Obama-people sort: Harvard Business School grads, their consorts and a scattering of stars. It was an interesting slice-of-life afternoon against the backdrop of what was happening in Washington on the big high-def screens.

The point of this event was for an interviewer to sound out myself and Amiri Baraka (yes, him, and I am not really sure just why) on the Inauguration and the Prospects For The Future. Baraka, smart as a whip and quite funny, sounded off with a long list of Marxist prescriptions with no hope of bearing fruit. Whether he really thinks calls to nationalize our banks are serious advice I genuinely do not know; more interesting was the way he could get an audience of more pragmatically minded blacks applauding now and then.

It was what Peggy Noonan parsed last May as harmlessly "summoning the old anger," then in reference to perfectly normal black burghers like the Obamas clapping at sermons by firebrands like Jeremiah Wright. Almost no one in the room agreed with Baraka's counsel, but there was something to just hearing the old man lay it out. Talk about a double consciousness.

Meanwhile, the Hayden Planetarium's Neil DeGrasse Tyson, a leading and celebrity astrophysicist who happens to be black, paralleled Obama's quest to seem to "happen to be black." Neil argued, with great (as Kennedy used to say) "vi-gah," that it's idle for black thinkers like Baraka to decry the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs overseas, since we need to stress technological innovation such that there will always be something new to manufacture here.

Very Tom Friedman and very sensible, but Neil is so much his own man—so, dare I say it, post-racial (although he isn't really, and knows it)—that he was neglecting a tacit rule in a setting like this one: that we were to keep front and center the humble black person who loses his or her job when the factory moves away. That is, what if technological innovation weren't happening fast enough to give someone like Michelle Obama's father, who supported his family as a pump operator, a new job if he were laid off? With Baraka and Tyson on either side of me I felt like I was sandwiched between the black past and present.

Some things about the black past are strangely enticing. Historian David Levering Lewis, who happens-to-be-black and is the author of the magisterial double-volume biography of W.E.B. DuBois and so much else, was present. As we talked, three things struck me.

First, it turns out he was friends with my mother at Fisk University in the '50s. Second, he used the word celerity in conversation. Third, however, was that a black man this erudite, with speech so utterly not "black" in any way, with his light skin, was never told he was "acting white."

Obama in his 2004 Democratic Convention speech decried "the slander that says that if a black youth walks around with a book in his hand, he is acting white." But the Black America Lewis went to college in knew no such thing. It only started in the late '60s as a defense response amid desegregation of schools, when white kids at first were not exactly welcoming to new black ones.

Until then it was whites who made fun of blacks for learning. Baraka told me of the time he, a northern black boy, visited the South, read a sign for Lucky Strike cigarettes out loud in a store, and was told menacingly by a white man, "Some folks talk too plain." That is, black people aren't supposed to step out of their place.

Today, black kids have, sadly, taken that surly white Southerner's place—although likely, Obama's example will start cutting through it. Maybe he has a head-start with black people younger than me. On the way into Manhattan I was reading a Russian magazine I keep up with in order not to lose my reading knowledge of a language I worked so hard to learn. But I felt funny about walking into this gathering with it—so unconnected to what the event was about. So, yes, "not black."

Not that I thought anyone would have a problem with it, but a voice deep down, one not even conscious, told me to tuck it into my coat pocket. Talk about the old anger—or, for me, the old wariness. I thought it might look pretentious, when all it is is a hobby. I grew up watching black kids being hazed for liking school.

But on my way out a 20-something young woman gathering her coat also had a book—by antique white writer William Dean Howells—and clearly had no problem with that being visible to anyone who happened to notice, though in no way considering it something to show around.

I guess she was more comfortable with herself than I am in some ways, poised between Amiri Baraka and Neil DeGrasse Tyson and finding myself tsk-tsking Neil on insensitivity to what we might call "black concerns."

On the way home to get to my laptop and write editorials, as we commentators were all doing in the late afternoon after the festivities were over, I did not open up my Russian magazine. Instead, I was thinking about how so much of the purpose of parties like the one I had been at, the eternal question mark as to how far we can expect black America to go, had been resolved at 11:30 that morning.

Are we free at last? Well, given that people of no color are truly free in America or anywhere else, I think we can say black Americans, problems acknowledged, are pretty close. So "some folks talk too plain?" Well, Obama sure talks plain in his way, and in 2009, no one white or black tells him not to. And most of us think he talks just right.

Original Source: http://www.forbes.com/2009/01/20/obama-inauguration-race-oped-cx_jm_0120mcwhorter.html

 

 
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