Michelle Obama and the Slumbering Black Masses

Michelle Obama speaks at a fundraising event in March. Photo by Michael Nagle/Getty Images.

Michelle Obama, shown speaking at a fundraising event in March, says her husband, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, is lagging behind Hillary Clinton in polls of black voters because of a "fear of possibility." Michael Nagle/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Nagle/Getty Images

There could be any number of reasons that Barack Obama trails Hillary Clinton among black voters. It could be Clinton's name recognition or her political experience. It could also be as simple as the fact that blacks are not automatons who will unthinkingly vote for a person of color.

To Michelle Obama, the wife of Sen. Obama, the reason that her husband is lagging in the polls is the "fear of possibility" owned by those blacks who are holding out — scared flesh in their racial memory from being told too often that we are "not ready" to achieve. Mrs. Obama holds, however, no fear. In an interview with MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski, she said she believes that soon the straggling blacks will "wake up and get it."

I don't disagree with the notion that for some people of color, there is a "fear of possibility." When Harriet Tubman ran the Underground Railroad, she used to carry a gun with her. It wasn't so much to use against bounty hunters. She used it occasionally to dissuade blacks so frightened by the journey to freedom that they wanted to run back to the plantation, thereby endangering all. But I would not say that fear of possibility or change is limited to blacks, nor is it the prevailing attitude among us. Were that true, we would all still be, at best, sharecropping — and, at worst, having our teeth checked prior to sale to the highest bidder.

For Michelle Obama to claim that one day black America will "wake up and get it" and support her husband is to imply that any person of color who does not vote for Obama is somehow slumbering or stupid. That Obama need not earn the black vote, but rather our votes must be given out of racial fidelity.

I would add that earning the black vote does not mean pandering to the idea of "black issues," as any issues that affect blacks — hate crimes and discrimination and lack of housing — are not restricted to a particular race. And to suggest that those are "black issues" is to intimate that the credit crisis and the war on terrorism and the rise in oil prices are of no interest to or do not affect people of color.

Instead, I would say that Obama needs to earn his votes through consistency of message. He can't pass himself off as an agent of change, then pander to the homophobic crowd. He can't claim to stand against the war, then continually vote for its funding. He can't send mixed messages as to whether America would actually use its nuclear arsenal to protect itself.

Like most black people, emotionally I want Barack Obama to be president yesterday. However, also like most blacks, I'm awake enough to know that Obama deserves to be evaluated on his merits, not just on the color of his skin.

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Whatever, John. As a black woman I am continually frustrated by the I'm-not-going-to-vote-for-Obama just because he's a black man. Well, that's all and good but will you vote for Hilary because she's a Clinton? Rather than relive the 90s and continue the Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton(?) dynastic double helix, I'm voting for Obama: A fresh face to play in an unknown political landscape. So go ahead and be proud that you aren't an automan voting blindly for a black person; just don't penalize the man because he is one.

Sent by Hafeeza R. | 6:19 PM | 11-13-2007

Why would an Idaho white boy support Barack? Because he may actually *be* a compasionate conservative and he at least talks like he was awake in class. ;-)

He's black? Black and white doesn't define him to me. He has supporters who are homophobic? I'm inclined to suspect he also has supporters who are gay. And he's pro-choice? Yep... I'll bet some of those supporters are pro-life. Could Barack be saying everyone doesn't have to be just like me, that while we Americans individually appear as black and white, straight and gay, life and choice, our strength must arise from a national purpose transcending these differences.

Sent by J Conrad | 11:37 PM | 11-13-2007

Then again, Obama didn't say it - Michelle did. Michelle Obama isn't a career politician, and should be granted a few 'thinking out loud' moments. If she'd had the chance to carefully edit and refine her ideas before their publication, perhaps the idea would have come out with more nuance.

Sent by Steve Collins, Ann Arbor, MI | 8:51 AM | 11-14-2007

I agree partially with the statements made in this article. I do believe to some extent that black people are slumbering. Some black people have this tendancy to be negative towards other blacks for being successful, for being cultural, and for being open to trying new things they as "white". He or she is percieved as trying to be "white". So I can see how Mrs. Obama can make that statement. On the other, I would agree that people should not have to feel obligated to vote based on color and should vote who they deem fit a suitable candidate.

Sent by Neeta | 10:06 AM | 11-14-2007

I think Mrs Obama is mostly right about Black Americans being fearful of the possibility of a the having a black man as the leader of the Free World but like all other races black people are motivated by their environment. Many Black American live in such a place where getting through the day is a major victory the possibility of tomorrow is all too consuming and not important. It took a very well constructed plan by societies elites to get them to that place and extraordinary measures will need to happen to get them out.

Sent by Yolanda | 10:10 AM | 11-14-2007

I understand Mr. Ridley's comments, but I think he is missing the point that the blacks who aren't in Obama's corner don't get it. They claim he is not "black enough," as if that means something in white America. Mr. Ridley, what additional merit does Mr. Obama need? Would you want him to be governor first, like Bush and Clinton? There really is nothing that will give you the experience you need to become president, unless it's being vice president, and according to Mr. Obama, he's not "running for second place."

You can principally be against the war, but vote for its funding because our GIs need help. Until we get a new president who believes we need to get out of this war, we sadly need to fund it. We can't just cut the funding off and leave our soldiers high and dry.

I believe in Barack Obama and his message--not just because he's black. I did not like Alan Keys and his message. Is it perhaps that Obama's message is not radical enough?

Sent by SAKK | 11:33 AM | 11-14-2007

As a volunteer who has canvassed on the streets of SC for the Obama campaign I want to say, with all due respect, that I think John Ridley is missing the point of what Michelle Obama said, acting in self-defense when this is so way beyond him and how he has the confidence to see beyond color. As I speak with most black voters, it is so obvious that they like Obama but are scared to vote for him because he is black. But door after door, voter after voter--that changes. By the end of our conversation they are excited to support him--though rarely will admit it to me or others. But the truth is, over and over I hear from them the same things: a)he could be shot just like MLK b)he will forget about black folks if he gets into the White House c)whites won't vote for him and d) I don't see anyone black in my own life that is accomplishing anything like being president--so why should he?

Of course black people can vote for whomever they please--but the majority would like to see a black man as president but don't believe that it is possible. Just as Michelle said in her interview--their self-confidence is still being squashed by the legacy and stress of slavery and discrimination. For NPR to run this story without a counter argument--when they gave Hillary Clinton's tipping story a counter argument, is sad and wrong. You can't deny that there's not something real going down in the black community--and if you do, you too need to hit the streets of SC and see for yourselves.

Sent by Mary Alice Lamb | 11:34 AM | 11-14-2007

"Wake up and get it", could also be metaphoric for, "get off your ass and do something!" Wake up black people! The time is now! Opportunity is waiting, but we ain't opening the doors.

Sent by Kevin L. Johnson | 1:00 PM | 11-14-2007

Well written, John. I believe that every candidate needs to earn the vote - skin color has nothing to do with the candidates qualifications.

I believe the words Mrs. Obama relay can be interpreted to mean different things though. I interpreted "Wake up and get it" to mean the same thing that Kevin (in the first post) says: "get off your tail and vote". It doesn't matter who the Blacks (or any other race) votes for, but do take action and do not let the hard work and sacrifices of those who were not allowed to vote be in vain.

Our country is in a fragile condition because nobody has taken the stance to fight for what is right. the "favor pendulum" swings from one party to another with each incumbent. We need someone that will look past the racial, political, & economical differences and once again truly make the States United.

Vote!

Sent by Ron Betts | 5:03 PM | 11-14-2007

Amen Mr Ridley.

Sent by Ismael | 11:41 PM | 11-14-2007

I am an african american female. I have voted since the age of 18 in national and local elections and I will not be added to the "masses" of blacks by Michelle Obama. Why should Barack Obama be president? It is only his stand on the issues that matters, not his race or the race of those who vote for him. Incidentally, Mr. Obama has my respect, but not my vote. There are other candidates runnining, (Clinton, Edwards, McCain) with more experience and that is what influences me, not race. I think Michelle Obama's statement was ridiculous.

Sent by V.J. Clark | 6:51 AM | 11-15-2007

Thanks Mr. Ridley for your thoughtful article. This upcoming Presidential election will be one of deep interest to me. I think the carefully crafted transition of government power by the religious right, which began as early as Reagan and essentially dismantled progressivism and liberalism in America, is at a sort of crossroads. If the nation goes one way, it's a sign that the foundations laid by the religious right are solid and will hold court for many more years to come. If the nation goes another way, the American public may be communicating a growing distaste for this slow and steady move to the Right. Either way, Obama and Clinton and all the rest of the presidential hopefuls remain stuck in this mode of having to say what that day's crowd wants to hear - often watering down policy to make is sound more "moderate." I'm not sure if any of them really want to change anything so much as just have a whole lot of power with which to play. And then, there's the corporate interests which have "bought up" so much of our government....Any advice on who to trust?

Sent by Franklin Stone | 1:00 PM | 11-15-2007

give me a break. Ridleys criticism of obama because of a quote from his wife is just hyper criticism. How about something thats real and substantial such as his stand on issues and saying that because obama will engage in dialogue with a reverend whose ideas on homesexuality doesn't jive with writers is pandering to the homophobic crowd is the equivalent of saying that obama engaging with iran is pandering to the terrorist crowd.

Sent by oscar | 1:30 PM | 11-15-2007

Bravo, John Ridley! I am insulted by Mrs. Obama's comments. I am a black, educated woman and I have been watching and listening to all that is being said - by all candidates. I haven't ruled Obama out, nor have I ruled him in, but I am watching and listening. I have to say that every time I hear or see him pandering to blacks I get a little angry and frustrated. I'm not stupid, I know race is an issue in this country, however, we all know that he is black, now I want him to show me something else he is...

Sent by Raye | 1:49 PM | 11-15-2007

In essence, the bottom line is that regardless of whether he is black or white, Obama is no different than any other "mainstream" candidate that has come through our political system in the past few decades. So playing the race card as his wife and he have at times is really no different than Hillary showing up at a Baptist church in the South and speaking in the tradition of the Reverend (although it may look a little less ridiculous).

Obama has simply has nothing new to offer voters except a different face, so to vote for him simply because he is a black man is pointless, and to blame black voters for not being "awake" in order to vote for him is passing the buck. I believe in the ability of people of color to change our world. But why vote for a candidate that has as his main draw for black voters that he is--black? There is very little about Obama's platform that has convinced me he will be good for the voter of color in the deep and far reaching ways that are necessary.

The things that ill the disenfranchised of the United States today are far beyond the grasp of our political system to solve. Obama will not be the band-aid to cover all of history's ills simply because he is black and reportedly has a "new take" on how to do things.

Is it possible that black people, in Michelle Obama's words, have yet to "wake up" simply because they see nothing compelling about Obama to get excited about? Because that's certainly the case for this black voter.

As for me? As a black voter I'm voting for Kucinich....at least he believes in reparations!! :)

Sent by Kioni | 2:16 PM | 11-15-2007

We as African Americans have constantly been disowned and disrespected by people of African ancestry from throughout the diaspora. Haitians, Nigerians and even dominicans treat us like garbage and revel in the fact that they aren't Black Americans. Granted , out of our ignorance we have treated them poorly also.

Mr. Obama is a victim of this disconnect between black americans and Africans from the dispora.The relationship hasn't been a pretty one. The fact that he is bi-racial compounds the issue. His class and formal education further complicates us voting for him. Dr King also ran into that problem. for those of us who consider ourselves "nationalistic"' he has too many white collegians who love him or us to ever see him addressing our needs. He will have to pander to his constituency. What would Malcolm do ?

Sent by Charles Epperson | 2:17 PM | 11-15-2007

John,

Mrs. Obama is experiencing the collision of the past and the future of black america. For Mr. Obama--or any black person to become president of the US--he or she must run not as a " black" candidate but a candidate who happens to be black. Michelle's is experiencing the paradox of wanting both--to expect that blacks will vote for her husband because he WAS/IS black and that Whites will vote for him because he is the best candidate. Not possible. If Mrs. Clinton wins, gender will play a role,since women have never held the office; if Obama wins, race will play a role since blacks have never held that office; but running on the identity of race and gender will not get you elected, since each identity is centered in oppositional politics, which by its very nature is minority politics...winning is about getting the majority to vote for you.

Sent by Nat Irvin | 6:59 AM | 11-16-2007

I realize that politics is ALL political. Therefore, you can't always show your hand. But as an African-American male in his mid-30's, I want to know where you stand as you run for President. When I attended Tavis' Smiley's conference to discuss the state of Black America at Hampton University, Barak was not standing with me. When thousands convened on Jena to discuss the judicial fairness in regard to the sentencing of six African American youth, I did not see Barak standing there. Today, as African Americans congregate in Washington, I wonder if I will see Barak standing there and addressing the concerns of Black America. I understand schedules, commitments, and the importance of creating an image which can be accepted by the masses but if a salt has lost its flavor. What good is it? I was glad that Senator Obama did not snub the Democratic debate moderated by Tavis Smiley like many Republican candidates. The question is would he have come alone without the validation of the other Democratic candidates?

Sent by Reginald | 10:35 AM | 11-16-2007

Mrs. Obama is right on the money. You have to listen to the whole interview to understand what Mrs. Obama was saying. She is commenting about people who like Barack Obama but will not vote for him because they are afraid he will be killed or that white people will not vote for him in the general election. So Mrs. Obama said that there is a "fear of possiblity".

Sent by Norar | 3:57 PM | 11-16-2007

"give me a break. Ridleys criticism of obama because of a quote from his wife is just hyper criticism. How about something thats real and substantial such as his stand on issues and saying that because obama will engage in dialogue with a reverend whose ideas on homesexuality doesn't jive with writers is pandering to the homophobic crowd is the equivalent of saying that obama engaging with iran is pandering to the terrorist crowd."

Great point.

Ridley seems completely oblivious to the fact that most Black people (conservative, liberal, etc.) are AGAINST gay marriage, which is considered both ungodly and a threat to the already weakened Black family:

It also didn't help matters that White progressive critics of Barack Obama (gay or not) engaged in the same racist stereotypes against Obama and Black America as a whole that they accuse conservative Republicans of:

Talk about hypocritical.

And you could write several books about the level of emotional and spiritual damage "down low" men have caused Black women.

In short, Obama being pro-gay clashes with the beliefs of the very demographic he's trying to win. Black voters like myself are skeptical of him more because of his platform than his race.

Sent by Fred | 8:33 PM | 11-16-2007

Went canvassing yesterday in Greenville, SC again. 2 elementary school cousins, K & M, took us through the housing project to help us through the maze of not-well marked numbers. They were so excited about Obama, wearing pins and cheering as we walked from door to door. Almost every door we went to was slammed in our faces by African-American women and men, mostly older, who wouldn't even engage in dialogue. Finally, while we were sitting on a stoop talking to a 22 year old young mom about Head Start--a man even jumped out of his car, ran up to the kids and started yelling at them that "they killed MLK--they killed Malcom, and they would have killed Colin Powell too. They'll kill him." He said he was 46 and as I watched him yell down these two smart, hopeful and enthusiastic children, saying that Hillary had to win--she had the money and she had Bill--I thought back to your article. The children spoke back to him thoughtfully. They said, "Was MLK's life in vain? Was he afraid?" They asked the man why he didn't vote and what he was afraid of. The man left them by saying he would pay them money if Obama won the nomination--and even went so far as to give them his phone number. It was sad and sick. The only thing sadder than hearing a 46 year old black man shouting down hopeful, bright children in a housing project in the middle of a beautiful Saturday is hearing well-educated middle aged black men attacking the Obamas out of context and missing the point on National Public Radio.

Sent by m.a. Lamb | 11:49 PM | 11-18-2007

John Ridley is on the mark. It is a mistake to think that people will base their vote entirely on one issue-whether that issue is race, gender, the economy, the war, abortion right, etc. To do so is to ignore the complexity of American life. All black people don't think alike, so there is no "black" candidate. All women do not think alike, so there is no "women's" candidate. Indeed, everyone has an individual perspective of the issues that affect them, and they decide individually what issues are important to them.

Sent by Eileen Corley, Charlotte, NC | 11:02 AM | 11-20-2007

John, stating that you won't vote for a black person just because they are black is like stating that you won't drink acid because it tastes bad. Duh!!! The days of trying to prove to "others" that we are "not automatons" are long gone. Politics is about voting your personal interests. Period. Whoever you think will benefit you and yours is the person you should vote for. The question becomes: who do you consider 'you and yours.' And John, your personal friends excluded, white people ain't yours.

History suggests that white politicians, whether out of prejudice, personal indifference, or simply to be in line with the perceived interests of their majority-white supporters, have yet to advocate for black people in anything but a token way. BILL CLINTON INCLUDED. As for Michelle Obama and her comments...

Michelle is only going to cost her husband black votes because 1) generally, black women don't like other black women; especially smart ones, 2) black people will shoot themselves in the foot trying to show white people that we don't support each other (i.e., "think alike"), 3)too many black people have bought into the idea of Bill as the "black president" and, thus, Hillary as the future "second black president," and 4) too many black women have had bad relationship experiences with black men to allow them to vote for a black man.

Yes, I said it.

Kahlil

Sent by Kahlil | 11:29 AM | 12-6-2007

Nothing personal, but I do feel that Obama is somewhat faking it, as Hillary keeps successfully pointing out. Youth and inexperience is a real deficit after all. The good part is that he will be taken more seriously in future races for having run already. Of course, a Hillary/Obama ticket could be genius in '08, and he could really learn the job as a close, trusted aid to Mrs. Prez.

Sent by Kevin M. | 1:52 PM | 12-22-2007

Do you really think there is that much difference between what would happen in the White House if any of the front-running three won? Hillary, Obama, Edwards... whatever. Pretty much peas in a pod. I fail to see how they are really different, politically.

Sent by mary Simmons | 4:54 PM | 12-22-2007

I would not be surprised to learn some Mormons voted for Romney simply because he's a Mormon. Neither would I be surprised to learn some women voted for Hillary simply because she's a woman. I imagine there are a number of groups who throughout history have made progress by supporting their members. It's high time Blacks in the U. S. take a lesson from the practice. Besides, even if I voted for Barack Obama simply because he's Black we'd still be in pretty good hands. He is an accomplished individual by any standard. He is driven and wants to make a difference. If voting for him because he's Black puts him in the position to affect change, then so be it. Of course, this would not apply in every case. All voters have a resonsibility to consider a candidate's competence and character. Barack Obama easily meets both criteria.

Sent by Smitty | 10:33 PM | 1-21-2008

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

And yet here we are, almost forty-five years later, with the conversation still focused on race.

In the time of Dr. King, this was because whites repeatedly contorted the issues around skin color, hence the above intercesion in his speech.

But what's curious is that while race obviously remains the focus of so many of our discussions (see the South Carolina democratic primary most recently), it now seems that our attention is re-directed to the subject of race not by whites, but by blacks. We have commentators above that unambigously endorse voting for a candidate based on skin color. Does the fact that it's not a white candidate now make that acceptable?

It's sad that Dr. King's children and the rest of us still aren't living in that nation of which he dreamed, but for reasons that I suspect he would not have imagined.

Sent by Buck | 4:50 PM | 1-28-2008

It sounds like you and I want the same thing... change. We're so afraid of offending the legacy of Dr. King that we effectively shoot ourselves in the foot. Barack Obama is a candidate for whom we can vote based soley on the content of his character! But, because he's Black, we've been hoodwinked into thinking we'd be hippocrates to vote for him. "zzzzz", said the slumbering masses.

Sent by Smitty | 11:22 PM | 1-30-2008

Mr. Ridley's comment about Obama's position on the war is simply not fair. As a poster said, Obama voted for funding once the war had already been started--against his stance--and troops were on the grounds. The fact that he voted to supply the troops with what they needed does not negate his original stance. It is perfectly reasonable and consistent to say "no we should not go to war" and then once we have gone to war--thanks to George Bush and senators like Hillary Clinton who gave him the power to start it--to say "now that our troops have been sent there, we should give them what they need to protect themselves and make the best out of a situation they are already in."

I am not black and therefore do not have the authority to discuss the psyche of most or any Black Americans.

I understand the concerns that some people have expressed about experience or lack thereof but I also realize that if all senators had had the insight and courage to oppose the war as Barack Obama did, not only would thousands of Americans and Iraqis be alive today but our country would not be plauged by the economic and international problems we are having now. If only more of our representatives and leaders had done what Obama did.

Sent by Monika | 11:00 PM | 2-1-2008

I'm 56 years old. I have seen the"momentum" surrounding Mr. Obama once before. When George McGovern ran and was crushed by Richard Nixon.

Sent by Michael Reilly | 7:31 PM | 2-19-2008