Obama and Hidden Racism

Mike Tomasky believes that, despite the fact that three-quarters of black Americans are middle class and that “[m]ore black and white people go to college together and work together than in probably any other racially mixed society in the world,” he thinks we’re essentially a segregated society.

I haven’t been able to find any numbers on this, but here’s my educated guess about the America of 2008. I’d bet that most white Americans have never been to black person’s home. I’d bet that most have never had a black person in their home (let’s be blunt: I’d bet most would, at the least, feel funny about it). I’d bet that most white families don’t have any sense that black families live the same kinds of lives they do, and have the same kinds of values they do.

Can that really be right? An ABC News-WaPo poll (which I examine in depth here) conducted last week asked, “Do you yourself know any (black/white) person whom you consider a fairly close personal friend?” 79 percent of whites and 92 percent of blacks answered in the affirmative. Even accounting for lying to look good to the pollster, it’s hard to imagine that most white Americans have never been to a black person’s home.

It is often said of people’s presidential vote that they’re voting for someone they’re going to be essentially inviting into their living rooms every night for the next four years. A white couple in the Obamas’ position — Harvard Law grads, residents of a racially mixed urban neighborhood — would have to demonstrate, as the Obamas do, that they’re “normal,” whatever that means. But the bar for the Obamas will be higher. For black people in America, it always is.

On one hand, it’s demonstrably false. Indeed, as Chris Rock jokes, white people seem to be impressed when a black four-star general is “articulate,” something that would be simply presumed of a white in that position. Obama has far and away the least impressive resume of any major party nominee in my lifetime, perhaps ever. He was plucked out of essentially nowhere — a state legislator running for a Senate seat — and made the keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and became an instant contender for the presidency the second he got elected to the Senate. That’s unheard of. The sheer novelty of “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy” is almost certainly at least part of the explanation.

Are there whites who wonder whether one of “those people” would can be trusted with the presidency? No doubt. But, last I checked, Obama was the frontrunner to be the next president of the United States. So it would seem that, whatever misgivings whites have about inviting a generic black man into their living room, they don’t apply to this particular black man.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2008, Race and Politics, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor 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. M1EK says:

    [Comment in violation of site policies deleted.] Obama’s resume is clearly more impressive than W’s was in 2000, given the fact that the governor of Texas is a figurehead (and W failed at everything else he tried).

  2. yetanotherjohn says:

    I suspect that Obama is getting more people who are supporting him now because of his color than he has people opposing him because of his color.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Obama’s resume is clearly more impressive than W’s was in 2000, given the fact that the governor of Texas is a figurehead

    Traditionally, to be considered of presidential timber, one has to have been one or more of the following: Vice President, Senator, Governor, or a very prominent General.

    Bush was twice elected governor of Texas, the third most populous state in the nation. He was re-elected by a wide margin and had developed a reputation for winning over Democrats and Hispanics.

    Obama had not been elected even to statewide office at the time he was selected as Keynote speaker.

  4. anjin-san says:

    Bush was twice elected governor of Texas, the third most populous state in the nation. He was re-elected by a wide margin and had developed a reputation for winning over Democrats and Hispanics.

    Yes, and he has probably been the worst president in our history. So much for resumes…

  5. tom in texas says:

    Obama had not been elected even to statewide office at the time he was selected as Keynote speaker.

    He had been a state senator for 6 years, winning elections in 1996,1998, and 2002 (He ran for the US House in 2000 and lost).

  6. Mike P says:

    James,
    You close with this:

    “So it would seem that, whatever misgivings whites have about inviting a generic black man into their living room, they don’t apply to this particular black man.”

    Doesn’t that seem a bit odd to you? “Generic black man” is something kinda scary, but since Obama’s exceptional, it’s ok to have him over for dinner? There are way more “generic” blacks (and whites) than there are Barack Obama’s wandering around.

  7. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Ofcourse Bush is the worst President in our history. He hasn’t turned the nation to socialism like idiots of Anjins strip wish. Anjin, what was it about Saddam you liked so well that you think he should have been left in power. Was it his use of wood chippers as torture devices you found so attractive? Please let me know. Maybe is was the use of gas on Kurds you liked.

  8. Alex Knapp says:

    Traditionally, to be considered of presidential timber, one has to have been one or more of the following: Vice President, Senator, Governor, or a very prominent General.

    Which is why Abraham Lincoln is widely regarded as one of the worst Presidents ever, due to his inability to hold any of those offices before being elected…

  9. PD Shaw says:

    He had been a state senator for 6 years

    I wouldn’t consider state senator a “statewide” office, he/she represents a district of the state and in the case of someone like Obama is generally unknown in the State until they rise to a leadership position.

  10. James Joyner says:

    Doesn’t that seem a bit odd to you? “Generic black man” is something kinda scary, but since Obama’s exceptional, it’s ok to have him over for dinner? There are way more “generic” blacks (and whites) than there are Barack Obama’s wandering around.

    Of course. But people often get used to the individual before they do so for the generic. Bill Cosby was accepted by white society long before they accepted blacks as a whole; he was considered the exception that proved a rule. You know, “one of the good ones.” After a while, you see enough “good ones” that the very concept becomes silly.

    Jackie Robinson, Colin Powell, Condi Rice, etc. were/are all exceptional. That’s rather the nature of being a pioneer.

    Which is why Abraham Lincoln is widely regarded as one of the worst Presidents ever, due to his inability to hold any of those offices before being elected…

    On paper, Lincoln would have been a lousy president. More importantly, though, he’d never have gotten the nomination in the current system. Indeed, I’d argue the Republicans weren’t even a “major party” until his win.

  11. Dantheman says:

    James,

    “Indeed, I’d argue the Republicans weren’t even a “major party” until his win.”

    The Republicans did far better in the election of 1856 than you seem to be implying, winning roughly 42% of the 2 party vote, and 39% of the votes in the Electoral College. Basically, if the Republicans won Pennsylvania and either Illinois or Indiana, Fremont would have beaten Buchanan, and Pennsylvania would still be waiting for a native son to reach the White House.

  12. anjin-san says:

    Zelsdorf –

    China is a brutal communist dictatorship. They execute people for attempting free speech, then bill the families of their victims for the execution. Your house is full of crap made in China. Before you go all sanctimonious on me, tell me why you are providing cash subsidies to these brutal communist dictators.

  13. joe says:

    The saddest racism in the nation is actually in the North, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, etc. These states hide behind history, point the finger toward the south, yet the African-American ghettos in New York City, Boston and Philadelphia (not to mention Trenton, Newark, Hartford and others) is shameful. This racism will raise it’s ugly head over the next few months, and hopefully the north will be seen for its hypocrisy.

  14. PD Shaw says:

    Lincoln was the leader of the Whigs in the Illinois House, getting the state capitol moved to Springfield and passing internal improvements laws in a hostile Jacksonian environment. His later debates with Stephen Douglas were important for bringing national attention to his form of Republican philosophy and demonstrating that he could beat Stephen Douglas, the presumptive Democratic nominee.

  15. Anjin-san, you really ought to read a little history if you think George W. Bush is the worst president ever. It’s not even clear that with a little time he’ll even make the bottom ten. Heck, Jimmy Carter didn’t even make the bottom ten, and I’ll take another eight years of George W. Bush before I’d want to see Carter back in the White House.

    Alex, you are confusing the concept of candidate and president. James referenced “traditional” qualifications for being considered a presidential candidate. But clearly, not all presidential candidates have met this criteria in the past. You reference President Lincoln after 4+ years as being president with the additional benefit of hindsight. These are two very different things. In fact, one could argue that about half the country was so appalled by Abraham Lincoln’s unfitness to be president that upon his election they left the Union, and only came back after 500,000+ men were dead.

  16. anjin-san says:

    From History News Network
    http://hnn.us/articles/48916.html

    “As far as history goes and all of these quotes about people trying to guess what the history of the Bush administration is going to be, you know, I take great comfort in knowing that they don’t know what they are talking about, because history takes a long time for us to reach.”— George W. Bush, Fox News Sunday, Feb10, 2008

    A Pew Research Center poll released last week found that the share of the American public that approves of President George W. Bush has dropped to a new low of 28 percent.

    An unscientific poll of professional historians completed the same week produced results far worse for a president clinging to the hope that history will someday take a kinder view of his presidency than does contemporary public opinion.

    In an informal survey of 109 professional historians conducted over a three-week period through the History News Network, 98.2 percent assessed the presidency of Mr. Bush to be a failure while 1.8 percent classified it as a success.

    Asked to rank the presidency of George W. Bush in comparison to those of the other 41 American presidents, more than 61 percent of the historians concluded that the current presidency is the worst in the nation’s history. Another 35 percent of the historians surveyed rated the Bush presidency in the 31st to 41st category, while only four of the 109 respondents ranked the current presidency as even among the top two-thirds of American administrations.

  17. Alex Knapp says:

    Alex, you are confusing the concept of candidate and president. James referenced “traditional” qualifications for being considered a presidential candidate. But clearly, not all presidential candidates have met this criteria in the past.

    Mostly, I was being snarky.

    But I do love that McCain supposedly does have a great resume, by virtue of the fact that he’s never held a job for any employer apart from the United States Federal Government. Say what you will about Obama, but he’s worked in the private sector, the non-profit sector, the education sector, AND the public sector. That ain’t shabby.

  18. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Anjin, you need to have your BDS treated. I suggest a lobotomy. (if that operation has not already been performed. Beyond that, I was not aware we had a cease fire agreement with China that, if violated would resume hostilities. Anjin, how many Presidents in recent history have facilitated the removal of oppressive governments, freeing great numbers of people from tyranny. Bush freed Afghanistan of the Taliban and Iraq of the Nazi like Baathists. Were you making a comparison of China’s government to that of Saddam? If so, are you aware China has a nuclear arsenal? Do you understand what that means? Do you understand anything

  19. anjin-san says:

    Bush liberated Iraq of the Nazi like Baathists.

    Yes. Now we have a pro-Iran government instead. Not sure that was worth half a trillion dollars and 4000+ dead Americans.

  20. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    By what declaration did you decide Iraq is pro Iranian? Was it pro Iranian to clean up Basra? Notice the Maliki government was elected by Iraqi’s.

  21. Anjin-san, and when you read history you will gain some perspective and realize that trying to place any active president on the best to worst scale while they are still in office is an exercise in futility. Wait at least twenty years for a little perspective, and then if I’m still around I’ll be happy to discuss it with you again. Check out the changes over time on the ranking of President Eisenhower and you’ll see what I mean.

    Alex, my concerns with Senator Obama have little to do with his resume and everything to do with apparently being to the left of George McGovern and Jimmy Carter.

  22. steve says:

    To the original point of the article, we had a discussion where I work touching on this issue. No one had visited in the home of a black person for at least ten years. Several of us considered ourselves friends of our black colleagues who work with us. I would love to see a survey that asks more specific questions that confirm the supposed friendship.

    Steve

  23. Floyd says:

    Perhaps the comments above have more to say about Mike Tomasky than about America 20008.

  24. anjin-san says:

    Anjin-san, and when you read history you will gain some perspective and realize that trying to place any active president on the best to worst scale while they are still in office is an exercise in futility.

    Charles I disagree with most of what you say, but you are obviously a fairly bright guy and you should avoid being pompous. I have read my history.

    Your point has some validity, but there are exceptions. Nixon was obviously a complete failure, record bad, while he was still in office (though Nixon, unlike Bush, had a first class mind, and did achieve some lasting positives to go along with the damage he did to the country, some of which may well be permanent).

    Carter too, was, Camp David aside, pretty much of a total failure, and this was clear while he was still in office. In Carter’s defense, I would say that he inherited a very weak hand from his predecessor.

    Bush has been a complete, total, utter across the board failure. Is he the worst ever in an absolute sense? Perhaps not. But a modern President, supported by our great military and economic power, armed with modern communications tools, is in a much stronger position to do harm than his 18th and 19th century counterpoints.

    Bush should not hold his breath waiting for the Truman bounce he is hoping for. I think that if Harry Truman were alive today, he would go to the Oval Office, give Bush a sound thrashing, then physically eject him from the White House.

    As for your snarky comments, more than a few professional historians feel comfortable rating Bush while he is still in office. Perhaps you should get in touch with them and tell them that they are not equipped to make such judgments and they need to “read history”.

  25. Anjin-san, fair enough and I appreciate your courtesy. Periodically, I quit posting because the reflection from the abyss becomes too great. The signal to snark ratio is getting too large again. I’ll commit to working on the pomposity — it’s just that it comes so damn easy sometimes. Thanks for the advice.

  26. Boyd says:

    All that notwithstanding (and I hate to break up the Charles/Anjin lovefest), Anjin, you’re continuing your nasty habit of making stuff up rather than discussing facts. And you cite “unscientific” and “informal” so-called “surveys” that are obviously meaningless as though they had some great import.

    I’m not impressed.

  27. anjin-san says:

    your nasty habit of making stuff up

    Please show me what I “made up”

    As for citing an “unscientific surveys”, well, many things are relative. A scientific survey can draw conclusions that are incorrect. Much research that is done today is badly skewed, because the folks footing the bill for the research have a vested interest in the outcome, and the researchers may want to continue to get paid. We have seen how are current government suppresses scientific conclusions it does not like.

    As for history and science, well two qualified historians might look at a presidency and draw completely different conclusions about its success or failure. Who is to judge which is correct?

    There is a level of subjectivity in the study of history. We do not really know who shot JFK, one of the seminal events of our time. We do not know how many planes went down in the battle of Britain. There is so much that we don’t know.

    Are you then, the judge of what is meaningful and what is not? History News Network strikes me as a pretty legit source. I suspect that if you agreed with my political views, you would not have a problem with my sourcing…

  28. Bithead says:

    A scientific survey can draw conclusions that are incorrect. Much research that is done today is badly skewed, because the folks footing the bill for the research have a vested interest in the outcome, and the researchers may want to continue to get paid.

    Heh. Global warming for example… The proposnats of which theory are invested into suppsoed alternatieve energy sources up to their eyeballs, and whose objectivity must be questions by any sane person.

  29. anjin-san says:

    … or research funded by the oil industry “debunking” global warming. Same effect.