Presidential campaigning has begun in earnest. With candidate declarations coming earlier and earlier, political junkies like me are happier than a two-headed mouse in a cellar full of cheese. I’ll start what is sure to be a series of pieces centering on the 2008 elections with the latest issue surrounding Joe Biden’s “clean” man — Barack Obama.
Readers of the Message know I’m not as high on Obama as most, but I find recent (though inevitable) debates about whether he is “black enough” to garner widespread black electoral support a bit misguided. Frankly, I don’t think this is a serious debate in the larger black community at all. It is actually a topic discussed in limited circles — ranging from a few cultural critics and politicos to even fewer rambling fools.
Sitting at the heart of the storm is columnist Stanley Crouch. Last November, well before Obama finally told us what many already knew — that he is indeed running for president — Crouch commented in his New York Daily News column, “When black Americans refer to Obama as ‘one of us,’ I do not know what they are talking about. In his recent book, ‘The Audacity of Hope,’ Obama makes it clear that, while he has experienced some light versions of typical racial stereotypes, he cannot claim those problems as his own — nor has he lived the life of a black American.”
Crouch concludes, “If (Obama) throws his hat in the ring, he will have to run as the son of a white woman and an African immigrant. If we then end up with him as our first black president, he will have come into the White House through a side door — which might, at this point, be the only one that’s open.” In a recent Time magazine piece, Orlando Patterson calls views such as Crouch’s a new black American “nativism.” He opines, “To be black American, in this view, one’s ancestors must have been not simply slaves but American slaves.”
Both Crouch and Patterson are intelligent men, and their thoughts merit attention, but I believe their conclusions are flawed in this instance. I just don’t think Patterson’s supposed “nativism” is as pronounced in black America as he contends. In fact, many black Americans are quite accepting of their Diasporic cousins from around the globe. If anything, many African Americans believe they are viewed with more suspicion and angst by blacks from other parts of the world than vice-versa. While Crouch and others at times argue against Pan-Africanism, some of its approaches to universal African-descended identity are alive and well in many African Americans.
Let me be clear — I don’t think Barack Obama can win a presidential election. This will be more because of white issues than black ones. No matter how much whites claim to support him, I’m not convinced that a large enough percentage of them have been able to unpack their racial baggage enough to vote for a black person for president — no matter his or her ethnic heritage. That being said, Obama will lose black votes, too — but not a single one because he does not have a black American parent. At the end of the day, he will lose black votes because of his political ideology, not his ethnic identity.
Informed blacks are now sophisticated enough not to simply support a person because of race. Remember Clarence Thomas? At a time when black people still face incredibly daunting problems on a number of fronts, most of us are highly disturbed that most politicians, including Obama, almost never speak to these troubles. Now, don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying Barack Obama should run a campaign in which he only addresses black issues. That would be foolish. However, he shouldn’t expect blanket black support if he becomes viewed as a candidate who takes every opportunity to distance his agenda from the difficulties hampering black progress. That’s not nativism — that’s just smart.
Remember, until next time — have no fear, stay strong, stand on truth, do justice and do not leave the people in the hands of fools.
Ricky L. Jones is associate professor and chair of the Department of Pan-African Studies at U of L. His LEO column appears in the last issue of each month. Contact him at