Barack Obama and the Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations

Ann Althouse notes with some fascination Slate‘s new “The Obama Messiah Watch” feature “which will periodically highlight gratuitously adoring biographical details that appear in newspaper, television, and magazine profiles of this otherworldly presence in our midst.”

Althouse makes directly a point I’ve made obliquely a couple of times: “What accounts for amazement to the point of adoration at the fact that a man possesses excellent skill at something like note taking? Is it not that he can do it and he’s black?”

There is undoubtedly an element of the soft bigotry of low expectations at work. I’ve often made the comparison between Obama 2007 and Colin Powel circa 2000: non-threatening black men with the ability to express themselves extremely well and without the baggage of having taken a lot of public stances on controversial issues. Another comparison, though, is illustrated by an old Chris Rock joke: “People say Colin Powell speaks so well. What’d they expect him to say? ‘Ahmma drop me a bomb’?” There’s something incredibly condescending to think of saying that a man who has risen to the ranks of 4-star general or United States Senator is “articulate,” but it’s always meant as a compliment. In reality, though, it’s a backhanded one.

Obama is more than “articulate,” of course; he’s a truly gifted orator. And he was editor of the Harvard Law Review and otherwise has some mighty impressive credentials. It does seem, though, that the bar is set much lower for Obama than most men who would be president.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. anselm says:

    Has anyone called him “articulate” lately? I’ve heard “eloquent”, which is hardly a given among politicians (esp. if you subtract points for long-windedness, cliche, and jargon). That seems like a genuine compliment, not soft bigotry.

    The fact is that he is a more gifted orator than most politicians. IMO his candidacy is becoming LESS about his color over time, and that is healthy for all of us and a credit to Obama.

  2. anselm says:

    I should add that I believe Althouse is throwing out this very predictable issue because that is the extent of her capabilities as a political blogger. In the article she linked, there is very little to support her thesis.

    Ultimately, we will just have to accept the fact that Obama is mixed race (aka, for the most part, “Black”) and that this is integral to his identity as a person and candidate. It is disingenuous to imply that incorporating race into a candidate’s identity is “identity politics”, when at the baseline it’s just the facts of life, to be taken at face value.

  3. Anderson says:

    I am not an Obama booster, but I think the “ooh, he takes good notes!” bit may be because, by all indications, the man is very, very smart. Which is a bit rare in Washington these days, esp. among presidential candidates.

  4. Caliban Darklock says:

    I’m very impressed by Barack Obama, and have had my eye on him for roughly a year.

    I am primarily suspicious as to whether he will remain largely unmoved by politics as we approach the election, or start toeing the party line more closely. I’ve already noticed a mild alteration in his word choices about the Iraq conflict, which imply (but do not outright state) a stronger disapproval than he’s expressed in the past. It is unclear whether this actually represents a shift in position.

    This concerns me, because my interest in Obama is largely his “new eyes”. He seems refreshingly uninterested in politics-as-usual, but this language shift looks like precisely that.

  5. Anderson says:

    Btw, JJ, his first name is not a synonym for where soldiers are billeted. (I know, you try so hard not to type “Osama,” you forget all about the first name.)

  6. Triumph says:

    Color is an irrelevant factor.

    The main problem with Obama is that he is muslim and was educated in a madrasa in one of the world’s largest islamic countries.

    Because of his association with enemies of the US, he will not be elected.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    There’s a difference between aptitude and qualifications. I have the aptitude to be the chairman of General Electric; the GE board of directors would have to be insane to put me in the job.

    If he were to receive the nomination of the party, Barack Obama would be the least qualified major party candidate in my memory.

  8. James Joyner says:

    Btw, JJ, his first name is not a synonym for where soldiers are billeted.

    Spelling fixed. Mostly, it’s just because it’s a name I’ve never seen before, so remembering how it’s spelled is hard.

  9. Len says:

    If he were to receive the nomination of the party, Barack Obama would be the least qualified major party candidate in my memory.

    Not mine.

  10. Caliban Darklock says:

    Triumph:

    1. Barack Obama is not a Muslim.

    2. The school he attended is not a madrasa. It is a public school attended by all faiths, which happens to be in a Muslim-majority country. He also attended a Catholic school in the same country for roughly the same amount of time.

    3. The Muslim people are not enemies of this country, and to the best of my knowledge Mr. Obama has never knowingly associated with enemies of this country.

    But who cares, right? Just keep the nigger out of the White House. We don’t want no black house.

  11. James Joyner says:

    Caliban,

    Triumph fancies himself a satirist, I think, although he drifts back and forth between direct expression and presumptive parody of extreme right views that it’s not always clear.

  12. vnjagvet says:

    Barack’s qualifications are eerily similar to a another Harvard Grad who, in 1960, overcame a hitherto insuperable obstacle, the “Catholic barrier”.

    However, he lacks (1) a politically ruthless father with extremely deep pockets and many chits to call in, (2) a potential running mate who has vote stealing credentials in a key state, and (3) the support of the head of a big-city political machine who can deliver another key state.

  13. Dave Schuler says:

    Not mine.

    Len, if you’re referring to Bush (for whom I did not vote in 2000), you’re conflating aptitude with qualifications. One of the reasons I didn’t vote for Bush in 2000 was that I didn’t think he had the aptitude to be president.

    However, the governor of any large state whatever else his shortcomings may be has qualifications for the presidency that are hard to match for any senator, especially a freshman senator who’s served less than two years.

  14. Anderson says:

    I sometimes wonder how big an obstacle a name can be to winning the presidency.

    Does the fact that most people can’t spell “Giuliani” make any difference?

    “Barack Obama” is just not going to play well. Leaving aside the people, like my boss, who make a point of calling him “Osama.”

  15. If it is a backhanded compliment or somehow an act of bigotry to refer to Colin Powell or Barach Obama as “articulate” or simply that they speak well then why is it ok to say that about Bill Clinton or JFK or any number of other well-spoken individuals? I don’t see it.
    As far as the bar being set lower, with money and the “game” of politics as it is, the person who gets to be President must meet a whole different, almost sinister, set of prerequisites.

  16. DL says:

    Would a junior senator with few proven qualifications be gaetting this much adoration if he wasn’t black? The media and its leftist utopian supporters are the ones who are the racists.

  17. Triumph says:

    Caliban,

    Triumph fancies himself a satirist, I think, although he drifts back and forth between direct expression and presumptive parody of extreme right views that it’s not always clear.

    The Obama stuff isn’t satire. Fox covered it as well as Insight magazine.

  18. Olden says:

    If it is a backhanded compliment or somehow an act of bigotry to refer to Colin Powell or Barach Obama as “articulate” or simply that they speak well then why is it ok to say that about Bill Clinton or JFK or any number of other well-spoken individuals? I don’t see it.

    The point that most African-Americans understand is that people RARELY use the term “articulate” with anyone *other* than African-Americans. The subtle message is that it’s unusual for an African-American to be articulate.

    You’d have to had been paying attention to the usage of the term for a while to see this term used repeatedly with African-Americans, especially those in public life. I’ve heard the term used for Colin Powell (which Chris Rock joked about in a stand-up routine), Condoleezza Rice, and many others (including myself and my family member) over the years and almost NEVER hear it used when refering to a white official or candidate.

  19. Would a junior senator with few proven qualifications be gaetting this much adoration if he wasn’t black? The media and its leftist utopian supporters are the ones who are the racists.

    I don’t think Osama would be getting this much adoration if he didn’t give a knockout speech at the Democratic primary.

    But even before that, he was already adored in Illinois. Was it because he was black? Unlikely. Otherwise, Alan Keyes (remember him?) would have had a bigger percentage of the vote when he ran against Obama for the Senate seat. I think the guy’s got charisma and ran a campaign with a positive message.

    Alan Keyes, too, is well-spoken and articulate and black. But the guy’s a little nutty. We preferred Obama much much more.