By Julie Marsh
In college, I remember seeing African-American students wearing t-shirts and carrying tote bags emblazoned with the words "It's a Black Thang. You wouldn't understand." And I remember wondering, "Why are you so sure?"
Slavery was abolished nearly 150 years ago, but the Jim Crow laws -- which I was reminded of every workday for four years, thanks to the preponderance of bathrooms and drinking fountains in the Pentagon -- are a relatively recent injustice. Bearing in mind that such overt discrimination and mistreatment occurred within the past fifty years, it's really not surprising that many African-Americans -- even younger people -- feel a sense of defensiveness and separation from white Americans. As online columnist Bill Maxwell wrote in the St. Petersburg times in October 2002:
"Slavery - with its collective memory and evil legacy -- remains the most powerful symbol in black life, and references to it are as natural as breathing. No one, except black Republicans and white conservatives, should be surprised that blacks invoke and evoke such imagery..."
While I can understand the roots of the black-white divide -- certainly not as well as if my own family was African-American and told me their stories of living under the Jim Crow laws, but hopefully with greater compassion than other white conservatives -- I have difficulty understanding the criticism leveled at blacks such as Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and most recently, Barack Obama, questioning their "blackness".
An article in the most recent issue of Newsweek, titled "Across the Divide", discusses the struggles that Barack Obama has faced -- not just in the initial stages of this presidential campaign, but throughout his career -- concerning his "racial authenticity". From Harvard Law School to the Illinois state Senate, Obama has successfully navigated the divide between conservatives and liberals, blacks and whites, by facilitating compromise and reaching a middle ground. While many see his consensus-building as a strength -- one desperately needed to balance the extremes of the left and right - others see it as a weakness, a betrayal of his African-American heritage.
During his time in the Illinois state Senate, a fellow state Senator recalls, "He was questioning Senator Obama's toughness and, frankly, his blackness, as to whether Barack really understood what it was like to be a teenage African-American standing on a street corner in Chicago and being harassed by police officers." When he ran against incumbent US Congressman Bobby Rush in 2000, both Rush and Illinois state Senator Donne Trotter "questioned Obama's racial bona fides, and his ability to represent poor black voters." The Newsweek article even quotes his wife Michelle's admission that before she met him, she thought,"This is a black guy who's biracial who grew up in Hawaii? He's got to be weird." Mrs. Obama goes on to say that she "had to work through her early misperceptions about him...the nation needs to do the same."
Others have done the same as well. After railing against Obama for his absence from the State of the Black Union and questioning Obama's commitment to his heritage, Princeton scholar and black political activist Cornel West has now endorsed Obama. While Bobby Rush complains that "the bourgeois elite in the country that would rather have a Harvard-trained, smooth-talking, forever-smiling, nonthreatening African-American than someone like himself," he "recognizes that Obama has a rare ability to work comfortably in different worlds" and supports him as a presidential candidate.
Still, the Newsweek article points out that "black voters are wary of whites who think Obama represents a kind of deliverance -- proof that blacks are doing well and that the playing field is leveled." And this point is echoed in National Journal, via The Atlantic Online:
"It's true that many African-American voters eye Obama warily. One reason is that jealous black leaders, rightly in fear of being eclipsed, suggest that he might not be black enough." The National Journal article, while dismissive of the persistent perception that "white America is still oppressing black America", celebrates Obama's success - whether he wins the presidency or not - as an inspiration for African-Americans (and a rebuttal to the vestiges of white racism that remain): "Obama's soaring success should tell black children everywhere that they, too, can succeed, and they do not need handouts or reparations. It should tell those white Americans who still don't get it that people with African blood can and regularly do achieve at the highest levels."
But if that's so, why the backlash against other successful African-Americans like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice? African-American columnist Larry Elder writes in the Jewish World Review:
"Look at the treatment of prominent black Republicans like National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell. Liberal critics pull no punches in using race to criticize them. Political cartoonists Pat Oliphant and Jeff Danziger drew political cartoons accentuating Dr. Rice's black features and depict her speaking in rural Southern dialect. Garry Trudeau referred to her as Brown Sugar in his comic strip, Doonesbury. Cartoonist Ted Rall suggested she was President Bush's house nigga and recommended racial re-education."
Is such backlash purely due to the politics of Rice and Powell? That because they identify with conservatives rather than with liberals, they are seen as defectors? Is Obama's willingness to bridge the gap between conservatives and liberals indicative to liberal blacks and whites alike that he cannot be trusted to uphold the views of his party or to represent the concerns of those who share his heritage?
While I cannot feel it as African-Americans do, I understand the bitterness and sadness that is the legacy of slavery, discrimination, and bigotry. What I cannot understand is the opposition to those -- like Powell, Rice, Obama, and so many others in and out of politics -- who are the standard-bearers for all Americans. Their successes should be lauded as an inspiration to all of our children, not as a betrayal of their heritage.
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