NPR logo Michelle Obama and the Slumbering Black Masses

Michelle Obama and the Slumbering Black Masses

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

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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.